Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Sat Sep 28, 2019 4:15 am 
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Bright moments: Almodóvar's beautiful summing up

My sense of Almodóvar has always been overwhelmingly visual. Does anybody make more bright-colored  movies? In content Pain and glory is darker and more self-absorbed than usual, more of a summing up. Yet the surface is as much cheerful eye candy as ever, its visual delight acquiring the special poignancy of the clown suicidal behind his ludic mask. The utensils on a kitchen counter are all bright red.  When somebody pulls out a cell phone, it's red, or wrapped in red.  Each shirt the protagonist wears is a different multicolored pattern, except for the robin's egg blue polo shirt he starts out with. But this is a man whose life has gone stale and who has run out of inspiration.

His name is Salvador, he is a illustrious filmmaker in a  creative crisis.  He's blocked, he's in all sorts of pain, and he's doing heroin to deal with his sufferings, physical and mental. He chokes all the time, and for that, nothing helps.  This is caused by an unusual ailment, detected later, to do with his vertebrae.

Salvador is played by a deliberately worn and aged-looking Antonio Banderas, in a low-keyed performance that won the Best Actor award at Cannes.  Alberto Iglesias won the Cannes soundtrack award.  This is one of the director's most important films, even if it may truly please only his most ardent fans, and yet displease some of them because it's atypical.

  Pain and Glory  is the segmented picture of a complicated life.  From the way Almodóvar started out in the provinces you'd never have known he'd become Spain's most famous movie director and the darling of the Madrid cultural scene.  And here, it is hard to see the moody, blocked filmmaker in the small son of impoverished parents who wind up living in a cave house.    
Hardship is downplayed in a masterful opening scene of little Salvador (Asier Flores) with his mother (Penelope Cruz) and other women singing as they do the wash by a stream, wishing they were men so they could swim naked.  This luminous sequence is like a musical.   Even the cave house the poor family moves into turns out to be flooded with sunlight - a part of it has no roof.  The boy gets sunstroke - or is he just love-struck? - reading while he sneaks looks at Eduardo (César Vicente), his "first object of desire" - a ready-made  Almodóvar movie title.

Eduardo is a handsome, strapping young workman who's illiterate, till little Salvador, who loves books and writing, is called in to give him lessons. The exchange is that Eduardo puts up tiles (bright colored) and whitewashes the cave.  He gets so dirty doing that one day he asks Salvador, while his mother is away, to let him take a bath in a tub, and hence the boy gets treated to a spectacular display of beefcake. Eduardo probably knows what he's doing.  Handsome young men are usually aware when they're being admired.

Creating what will become  a kind of Rosebud, Eduardo, who's artistic, does a drawing of young Salvador reading that long gets lost but then turns up by chance many years later and is bought by the blocked, or perhaps now unblocking, filmmaker.  Isn't he unblocking, since he's making this film? Pain and Glory eventually begins to reflect back on itself - another Almodóvar trademark being deft plot construction that, like psychedelic color, delights despite, or even because of, its artificiality.

A voiceover  sequence very early in the film where the mature Salvador lists his multiple ailments, which include back trouble, tinnitus, and depression, to name only a few, is illustrated by a dazzling series of bright-colored diagrams and symbols.  If he's sad, he doesn't let us see it in his choice of visuals.  If only Power Points were like this, students would stagger out of lectures high on imagery. (Even the opening credits sequence of this film is memorably elegant, simple, and gorgeous.)

The movie's sketch of the family side concludes later with the grownup Salvador sweetly caring for his aged mother (Julieta Serrano), a sequence among the film's most mundane yet most poetic.  There is no detailed, practical picture of the protagonist's creative life or his love life except in reference to his most famous film, Sabor, from thirty years ago, the lead actor he's been estranged from all those years, and a long lost lover who was a heroin addict.  The grownup portion of the film is about Salvador's lingering unease, hypochondria, troubling physical ailments, and writer's block.  Hope appears through reunions with the actor and the lover. Salvador finds the actor Alberto Crespo (Asier Etxeandia) and they collaborate on a new performance called "Addiction."   By coincidence (Almodóvar's plots also have a fairy tale aspect) the former lover, Federico (Leonardo Sbaraglia), long a resident in Argentina but in town to collect an inheritance, sees "Addiction," realizes it's about him, and seeks out the author, even though it was presented anonymously.  

Alberto, the actor, and Salvador seem two egocentric basket cases when a restored print of Sabor is shown and they can't manage to show up for the post-screening Q&A and only answer some questions for the emcee on the phone broadcast to the audience.  It's an enthusiastic crowd, an ego boost to the director, and at the end he is about to have the choking problem solved.  Somehow this ending seems hopeful, happy, sad, and scary all at once: it's overwhelmingly emotional, and satisfying if you want a good cry.

In his Hollywood Reporter review Jonathan Holland complains repeatedly that Pain and Glory isn't funny enough, hardly funny at all.  This is true.  But the surface of the film is continually pleasing. And Banderas' low keyed performance gets to you. In my case I have always liked best when Almodóvar was quiet and magical, especially in  Talk to Her.  Perhaps the giddy comedy he developed so fluently in the Eighties was a mask to hide whatever was going on inside.  Anyway after 36 films the director has a right to be serious.  Yet at the same time, Pain and Glory has Almodóvar's distinctive look and structure.  It may take repeated viewings to perceive that it's a triumph.  But obviously there were inklings at Cannes.

Pain and Glory/Dolor y gloria 113 mins., it opened in Spain Mar. 22, 2019, then as mentioned debuted in Competition at Cannes in May, winning Best Actor and Best Soundtrack awards.  Other festivals included Sydney, Melbourne, Taipei and Munich, Toronto. Showing today at the NYFF. US theatrical release from Oct. 4, 2019. Current Metascore 82%.
Showtimes NYFF
6:00 PM
12:00 PM
VENUE: Alice Tully Hall

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