‘Pain and Glory,’ Pedro Almodovar’s latest film, is about a filmmaker who is at the Autumn of his life. it’s tempting to think that the film is autobiographical since the character, Salvador Mallo (played by Antonio Banderas) lives in a house that is an exact replica of Almodovar’s, and banderas even wears the director’s clothes. But I think Almodovar only wants one to think that, as his persona has always dallied with a wink-wink playfulness. As a Director, I never always agreed with his artistic choices, but I have to say his films are always interesting. This one s no exception.
Banderas is great here, as he now is more a Daddy than the carnal flower. There are lines and experience in his face, and Banderas shows them off with great dignity. Salvador Mallo has been experiencing some physical pain (he can’t swallow food) and is in an introspective mode. he reconnects with an actor of one of his films after a falling out, having not been satisfied with the actor’s performance. They bond and gets Mallo hooked in heroin. Then when you think the film starts going the route of a man in late-life crisis, it takes a turn to things a little more unexpected. The modern scenes are interspersed with a narrative of a boy (perhaps Mallo? perhaps Almodovar) who goes to live with hi parents in a cave. An intelligent boy, he starts tutoring a young man who becomes his ‘first desire.’ Everything in the film is heady and busy, but it’s never not making sense. I thought the first part dragged a bit, as if trying to get to a point, but once it got there, it all made sense. The ending is framed with a twist, and then all the pieces of the puzzle are strewn to make sense, only for it to get dismantled again. This film is typical Almodovar for me – there are things about it that I loved, but there are other things in it that confused me, stuff I think I didn’t get, that maybe I should read up on and see again. His films never sit still, and I am all the better for it.
I cannot say I always agree with and enjoy Pedro Almodovar’s work but I am always engaged by them, and that is more than I can say for a lot of filmmakers. He is always something in his stories, and his characters, mostly the women, are colorful both literally and figuratively. In his twentieth film, ‘Julieta,’ Almodovar gives us another one of his women – and this one ranks among the best of them. Julieta is fierce, strong, vulnerable, flawed, and very very real.
Julieta is played by two women in different times of her life. There’s the middle aged Julieta, played by Emma Suarez, and in the beginning we see her as someone pulled together, only to have a chance encounter rock her world. We go back decades later to a young Julieta, played by Adriana Ugarte, and this Julieta looks and acts like Madonna from the Papa Don’ Preach video. And then we see her life unravel before her eyes, and what a mad and fascinating story. She goes from being a teacher to living in a seaside town with a hunky fisherman, only to be drawn back to Madrid because of her daughter, who we find out as an adult has abandoned her mother. But how did we get to this point? The story Almodovar weaves is as colorful as the sets and wallpapers of the homes these characters inhibit. Suarez and Ugarte are both fantastic, but I was particularly drawn to the former, who gives the character a more subtle approach. I read that originally this character was supposed to have been played by Meryl Streep and as good as Suarez is, can you even imagine?
Almodovar based the story on three Alice Munro short stories, and he nailed the feel of her prose – a lot of what transpires is open ended but realized, and situations and characters will make you ponder about life, mortality, Catholic guilt. He likens love here to addiction and in these characters, and the observation has never more apt. I think this is one of his best work – one that is mature and self-assured, and truly one of the best films of last year.