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Pain and Glory: Pedro Almodóvar’s latest movie is as much self-therapy as it is self-portrait

Spanish filmmaker Pedro Almodóvar is to represent Spain at the Oscars for the seventh time, with his 21st feature film Pain And Glory.

Pain and Glory: Pedro Almodóvar's latest movie is as much self-therapy as it is self-portrait
The director Salvador Mallo, a stand-in for Almodóvar himself, is played by Antonio Banderas. Pathé UK

The movie stars Antonio Banderas as the protagonist Salvador Mallo – a film director who represents Almodóvar himself.

Almodóvar’s endlessly self-referential films, though they are able to stand alone, have always gained when viewed in the context of the artist’s life and body of work. Pain and Glory is no exception. But where Almodóvar has, in the past, been accused of self-indulgence, here he shows an assured lightness of touch.

In the film’s opening scenes, we contemplate Antonio Banderas’s embattled and exquisitely ageing body as he stands in a swimming pool, at first submerged under water, eyes closed, as if in an amniotic sac. Then he emerges, looking pensive. What follows is the first of a series of flashbacks to Mallo’s childhood as the story moves fluidly between past and present. Liquidity is a motif in the film which, beyond its embryotic and erotic connotations, symbolises cinema’s flow of images across time (“the cinema of my youth smelled of piss, jasmine and the summer breeze”).

An ailing protagonist

Banderas’ body as a still life expresses the lone melancholy of a character in his twilight years. On his belly he bears the shiny raised scar of an operation. Vivid animated graphics (by Juan Gatti) allow us literally to see inside the body of Mallo, illustrating his many ailments – from lumbar backache and sciatic nerve pain to depression and anxiety.

But the omnipresence of his ailments throughout the film doesn’t feel heavy – instead it is confessional and intimate, hinging on the audience’s knowledge that Almodóvar suffers from a similar list of afflictions. The “Pain” of the title is physical as well as spiritual – Mallo tells his doctor that he can’t make films if his body is weak.


Almodóvar’s depiction of his own pain feels intimate and confessional. Pathé UK

 

Paradoxically, making films is the very thing he needs to do. Creativity – and its inherent eroticism – is posited as a wellspring to combat death and paralysis. When a past lover, Federico (Leonardo Sbaraglia), stumbles across a performance of Addiction, a play written by Mallo detailing their relationship, the two reconnect in an emotional and highly sensual encounter that prompts Mallo’s journey to recovery, both physically and emotionally. Later, Mallo discovers – again, seemingly by chance – a painting of himself as a child by an old family friend, Eduardo (César Vicente), catalysing his memories of his sexually charged relationship with the young artist (in reality, the painting is the handiwork of Jorge Galindo, an artist with whom Almodóvar has collaborated in the past).

Through these accidental discoveries, art mediates between characters, reminding them of shared raptures. Mallo’s life becomes once again charged with sensuality. While he is shown to be dependent on both love and art in a way that might be described as an addiction, ultimately their effects on him are healing. Life, he reads out loud, may be a “useless medicine”, but art is his tonic.

Memory and fiction

Due to the highly personal and self-referential nature of Almodóvar’s work, it is often classified as belonging to the Spanish genre of autoficción (autofiction, or autobiographical fiction). Pain and Glory in particular seems to have been made almost specifically for those with an intimate knowledge of the artist’s life and career.

Its central plotline – in which a director and an actor are reunited after 32 years – draws unmistakably on Almodóvar’s public falling out with Carmen Maura, the star of Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown (the 1988 film that launched Almodóvar to international fame). Maura was reunited with the director years later when in 2017 they attended together a showing of his early film, Law of Desire, at Madrid’s Filmoteca as part of a retrospective of Almodóvar’s work.

In one of the film’s most beautiful scenes, Mallo as a young boy watches his young mother (played by Penelope Cruz) and other women singing as they wash sheets in the river. Prior to appearing here in film, this moment was described as a childhood memory by Almodóvar as early as 2006 in publicity for his movie Volver.


Almodóvar recreates an early childhood memory, in which his mother, played by Cruz, washes sheets in the river. Pathé UK

 

As well as individual memory, Pain and Glory draws on collective memory. It subtly refers to Almodóvar’s connection to La Movida, the underground scene that emerged as a reaction to the repression of the dictatorship of Francisco Franco, and touches on the drug-taking and darker sides of the hedonism of 1980s Spain.

But the film’s relationship to reality is not as straightforward as it may seem. Almodóvar has inserted famous flamenco star Rosalía, for example, into the scene with Cruz by the river where the women sing A tu vera (At Your Side), a famous hit by folkloric diva Lola Flores. Spanish folklore gets a contemporary update, and so does Almodóvar’s childhood memory.

In another scene, the older version of Mallo’s mother (played by Julieta Serrano) scolds her son for the way he has represented her and the characters of his childhood (“I don’t like autofiction” she says, and “The neighbours don’t like it”). In light of the marked lack of resemblance between Serrano and Cruz, Almodóvar hints at his own adjustments and embellishments.

His mother’s vague allusion to “the neighbours” recall a common saying in Spanish —el qué dirán– which translates loosely as “what will the neighbours think?” The neighbours, like Almodóvar’s audience, are always watching. Perhaps Mallo’s mother is not only representing the voices of those among whom Almodóvar grew up as a child, but of those who have followed and critiqued his work as an adult. When Mallo remarks to his mother, later, that “I failed you by being as I am”, he is perhaps speaking back to those same critics.

Ultimately, though Almodóvar bares his vulnerabilities, he does not apologise for being “as he is”. The film pays tribute to his audiences – critics and fans alike – who have followed his career up to this point. But if we are to believe this film as a self-portrait, it was also a film for himself. Making it was his therapy and cure.

By Sarah Wright, Professor of Hispanic Studies and Screen Arts, Royal Holloway

This article was originally published in The Conversation. Read the original.

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FILM

These were the five stand-out Spanish films of 2019

Dramatic, warlike and familiarly comic – the 231 Spanish films released in 2019 offer a remarkable variety of genres but very few truly memorable moments.

These were the five stand-out Spanish films of 2019
Photo: Sara Robertson/Flickr
Andrej Klemencic chooses his selection of the five stand out films of the year in Spanish cinema.
 
Pain and Glory
 

As he ages, Almodovar as name outgrows Almodovar as filmmaker and he becomes some kind of Spanish Martin Scorsese – revered when reverence is overdue.

Besides being flushed with nominations and awards when already lacking the something more, whatever, in Almodovar’s case that may have been, both directors have in common that the narrative in their films is delivered in such a way that even with no mastery at play, the experience is always a very filmic one and the viewer is kept entertained at all times.

Almodovar’s latest is no exception as a portrayal of a middle-aged film director, based to a certain point on his own path, who struggles with a colourful palette of obsessions, is dynamic enough and interesting enough to make for reasonably enjoyable viewing. Antonio Banderas performs expectedly well as one who lost touch with creativity and is through humorous and melodramatic circumstances seeing it come back to life.

Colour is vivid, and the supporting actors, including Penelope Cruz, paint a lifelike picture of the post-war Spain of director’s childhood and link it to contemporary Madrid. The lost Spain comes to life so vividly that one could almost recommend the film based on those sequences alone.

Rosalia also features singing beautifully by a river.

While at War

The second major film of the year is “Mientras dure la guerra” by Alejandro Amenabar. As with Almodovar, this director is becoming a household name around the globe. Despite the fact his breakthroughs, in Spain and internationally were colour suspense, Amenabar takes up one of the quintessential topics of contemporary Spain – the Civil War – and turns it into an hour and three quarters of more than passable filmmaking.

The film centers on Miguel de Unamuno,  an intellectual, writer, professor, who at the beginning of the Civil War was the rector of Salamanca University. The film on the one hand explores his inner struggles as he tries not to take sides, and on the other the viewers are shown how Franco emerged as the leader from a group of rebelling generals.

On the first front, the film makes it painfully clear that the Spanish Civil War, in the beginning, a battle between the nuances of grey, some darker and some containing more light, rather that a battle between the unquestionable good and absolute evil. The second interesting insight it provides, is that it attributes Francisco Franco’s ascent to power to a chain of events which seem to be more a fruit of chance rather than of meticulous planning to overthrow the system.

The aged intellectual de Unamuno is in the end forced to take sides, but in his rebellion whose aftermath takes place in a scene in which he is being driven with Franco’s wife in a car, much is said about what lies behind the veil of secrecy that makes so many Spanish ways mysterious to an outsider.

Santi Prego, the actor portraying General Franco is frightfully good and brings the character to screen in a way almost disturbingly real.

Elisa y Marcela

From director Isabel Coixet, considered by some as the leading art-house force of Spanish cinema comes a story of two women Elisa and Marcela who fall in love just before the 20th century begins and live their odyssey from La Coruña, via rural Galicia and Portugal to Argentina.

During one part of their struggle, one of the women takes on a man’s identity so the couple could get married in order for the village voices to leave them alone. Their marriage was never annulled and presented hope for many.

The director shot in black and white. Large landscape stills contrast the emotional and physical intimacy between the women. Some of the ways in which the director chooses to create the dynamics of their first encounters are beautiful and have as backdrop the pure waters of Galician beaches, the forests, mist and frequent but playful rain.

Greta Fernandez is convincing as the only seemingly fragile Marcela while Natalia de Molina does not do as good a job failing repeatedly to move out of the stiff, provincial theatre-like acting, not at all infrequent in Spanish films and on TV. Additionally, as many Spanish film actors for a reason that defies logic, seem not to be taught to enunciate, you will, with Elisa and Marcela, as with a vast majority of films made in Spain, welcome the subtitles even if you are a native speaker.

At some stage in the second part of the film, it becomes quite clear that Coixet is no grand filmmaker as she fails to recognize that some of the staggeringly static moments should never have made the final cut, and this makes the otherwise watchable film not quite easy to recommend wholeheartedly.

Who Would You Take With You on a Deserted Island?

Two couples, a Madrid apartment, a TV film and closeted homosexuality as the main topic. This unpretentious work is the second feature by director Jota Linares and talks about four youngsters moving out of a shared apartment after a decade or so of flatmating.

Different to the bravery of Elisa and Marcela, the same sex relationship between two characters is hidden from the viewers for the large part of this Netfix flick as well as from the remaining two roommates themselves.

Predictably enough, drama ensues as the revelation is made and the relationship between the four takes on a dimension seemingly leading into a tragic crescendo. Yet there is a half twist in the second part making the film not as predictable.

The four actors move between Greek tragedy and a modern urban drama. The interiors are naturalistic, and the direction does not get in the way of the narrative.

As a curiosity, actress Maria Pedraza who until accepting a role in the non-highly-rated series Toy Boy was seen as one of the rising stars of the Spanish cinema, pairs here for the third time with Jaime Lorenta with whom she shared TV screen in series Money Heist (2017) and Elite (2018).

Los Japon

Ocho Apellidos Vascos goes to Japan losing much of its humour along the way.

Since the film from 2014 with English title “Spanish Affair” capitalized on a long list of prejudice the residents of the Basque Country seem to have of Andalusians and vice versa, grossing more than 75 million dollars in box office, Spanish filmmakers have been trying to replicate the successful recipe.

While Ocho Apellidos Vascos was genuinely funny, its first sequel, Ocho Apellidos Catalanes was much less so, and the third attempt at stereotyping, this time moving to international waters, echoes little of the sparkles the original film brought.

This time an Andalusian, a descendant of a Japanese who centuries ago moved to a town close to Seville, turns out to be the only heir to the Japanese throne. He and his family move to Japan and you can pretty much figure out the rest.

Series of jokes, some a bit funny, are based mainly on basic stereotypes and are followed by jokes based on even more basic stereotypes and so on.

If you for some reason find Dani Rovira, the star of Ocho Apellidos Vascos irresistibly funny and you crack at every Andalusian joke you just may be able to get through the film.

 

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