Friday, January 17, 2020

“Pain and Glory”: Not Lost in Translation

A movie about a successful film director coming to terms with his own past? Sounds suspiciously like Fellini’s 8 ½.  But Pedro Almadóvar could never be confused with the Italian master. First of all, Fellini’s alter ego (played by Marcello Mastroianni) is bedeviled by the various women in his life: his ex-wife, his mistress, the idealized woman of his dreams. (The latter is represented on-screen by the luscious Claudia Cardinale.) Almadóvar’s central character, as played in a strikingly complex performance by Antonio Banderas, is more romantically focused on men. But the essential figure in his life is female: his strong, fierce, intelligent mother, who once made sure—despite the challenges of poverty—that her young son got the education he deserved. (In flashback scenes, she’s represented on-screen by another Almadóvar regular, the luminous Penélope Cruz.)

Then there’s the fact that 8 ½.like many of Fellini’s masterworks, is filmed in austere black & white. Almadóvar, more than any other director I can think of, is in love with color: his characters wear electric orange, brilliant red, poison green, as well as bold eye-catching prints, and they live against dazzling backdrops made up of impossible color combinations. I’m told that the home occupied in the film by Banderas’s newly-affluent character, Salvador, is in fact Almadóvar’s own, which clues us in to the fact that they share similar tastes, if not identical life stories.

When first seen, Salvador is literally under water, symbolically drowning from a combination of physical pain, guilt, and lack of artistic inspiration. Invited by a prestigious cinematheque to star in a Q&A celebrating his 30-year-old film, Sabor, he does everything he can to sabotage the evening. Obsessed, because of past memories, with the ravages of addiction, he comes very close to going off the deep end. This is the point in the film where viewers like me start to become deeply uncomfortable: where exactly is this heading?

But an Almadóvar film delights in the unexpected. It occurs to me that this is one way that Pain and Glory echoes, but in reverse, another of the year’s great foreign-language features, the South Korean Parasite.  That film won my heart partly for the way it shifted gears from comedy into something far different. In a sense—though I don’t want to oversimplify—Pain and Glory works in the reverse order, immersing the leading character in what seems to be hopeless psychic pain, but then, through some off-the-wall but deeply moving coincidences, pulling him out of it. It’s a victory we savor, leading to a gloriously meta closing scene. (No, it’s not the director and all the people in his life joining hands and dancing in a ring to a Nino Rota score.)

Like Parasite, Pain and Glory (aka Dolor y Gloria) is an Oscar nominee for Best International Feature Film, a renamed category that used to be Best Foreign Language Film. And like Parasite it too is the recipient of major awards, both for Almadóvar and for Banderas’s essential work. Though it’s rare for a foreign-language performance to win an Oscar, Banderas (a much admired actor in both Spanish and English) could conceivably go home with a statuette. Probably not, alas: there’s a Joker in that deck.. But the strength of both Parasite and Pain and Glory should remind us moviegoers not to feel limited to films made in our own language. One small theatre chain in L.A. proudly uses as its slogan “Not afraid of subtitles.” If we insist on seeing only movies made in English, we’re missing out on a whole wide world of great cinema.

Here’s a letter in which Almadóvar himself writes about the autobiographical aspects of this film

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