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Posts Tagged ‘Pedro Almodovar’

At what point does entertainment cross the threshold of genuine art? Is it even a meaningful distinction? Does your story have to have a certain degree of complexity or depth to it? Or can it just be a simple tale, told with artfulness and care? If so, at what point does worthwhile embellishment become actual pretension and self-indulgence? Lots to think about here, and the film that got me pondering this particular issue is Pedro Almodovar’s Julieta, from 2016.

(Yes, it’s another Almodovar review – what can I say, having finally discovered this director I’m in a hurry to catch up, and having bought two boxed sets of his films recently I would anticipate a string of further reviews to come. What can I say? At least you’re not having to pay for this stuff.)

Not for the first time, the film initially presents a kind of narrative puzzle-box, the contents of which only become clear as it proceeds. The central character is Julieta (Emma Suarez), a middle-aged woman living in Madrid. She and her partner Lorenzo (Dario Grandinetti) are on the verge of completing a long-planned move to Portugal together, even though it seems that Julieta is not quite as committed to this as him. Then, quite by chance, she meets a young woman in the street – a childhood friend of her daughter’s. The friend reports meeting Julieta’s daughter and family in Switzerland. It is a casual conversation for the friend, but the impact of it seems to strike Julieta like a hammer-blow. She abandons her plans to go to Portugal, ignoring how hurtful this is to Lorenzo, moves into an apartment in the building where she used to live, and begins to obsessively write an account of her life, for her daughter Antia’s benefit.

It begins many years earlier, when Julieta (played in her younger days by Adriana Ugarte) had yet to settle down and was working as a supply teacher. While travelling by train one night, her journey is disrupted by the suicide of a fellow passenger – but as a result of these events she embarks on a passionate relationship with Xoan (Daniel Grao), a man she has just met. She takes his letters to her as a tacit invitation, and they resume the affair in the town where Xoan lives once her current job is over. Then it transpires that she is pregnant, and naturally everything changes. As the child, Antia, grows up, Julieta is perhaps a little dismayed that Xoan has a better relationship with her, but still reasonably happy. But tragedy is waiting for the family, and will inflict the kind of emotional wounds from which some people never completely recover…

Some people mellow with age, but Almodovar seems to have grown sourer, if that’s quite the right word for it. Certainly, while Julieta retains the outward colour and vibrancy which in many ways the director’s trademark, the story has a darker and more sombre tone than that of his most famous films. The narrative has a degree of the subtle complexity of those films, but for the most part this is a simple case of a story told mostly in flashback, the opening and closing scenes basically being a framing device. And, while the resonances with Hitchcock are less pronounced than in some other films, the story itself moves through dark territory. Julieta’s life is shaped by random chance, and many of the key events are tragic, to say the least: a suicide, a fatal boating accident, and so on. The corrosive effect of deceitfulness and dishonesty within families is also dwelt upon. The losses Julieta experiences come close to breaking her as a person – much of the film is about loneliness, isolation, and just how difficult it is to recover and rebuild when closure has not been fully achieved.

It sounds like pretty heavy going and to be honest it is – no matter how well-told the story is, there’s no escaping the fact that it gets progressively tougher to watch as it continues. It’s as close to bleak as you will find in a Pedro Almodovar movie, although the director apparently enforced a strict ‘no crying’ rule for his two lead actresses, on the grounds that this is a film about long-term despair rather than particular outbursts of grief and sadness. It is to Almodovar’s credit that the film stays as watchable as it does, given the subject matter.

This is also, of course, because of the very strong performances of both lead actresses, who keep the film accessible even when the character is not the most accessible or sympathetic of individuals. It is undeniably a little odd that the lead role is split in the way it is – when the film jumps back in time from the older Julieta (Suarez) to her younger self (Ugarte), you almost do a double take and wonder if that’s really supposed to be the same person. It soon doesn’t matter, for you get used to Ugarte’s engaging screen presence, and it does allow Almodovar one of his most impressive cinematic flourishes – when the film reaches the point at which the older Julieta is again played by Emma Suarez, it happens mid-scene, and again you almost do a double-take, the change is not immediately obvious.

Still, the decision to split the role remains a slightly curious one, which the director defended by expressing his doubt about the believability of old-age make-up and the unique presence possessed by older actresses. (At one point this film was intended to be Almodovar’s English-language debut, to be made abroad and starring Meryl Streep as the older Julieta – one wonders who would have played the younger one.) It is just one of a number of choices which some might take issue with. The film is a relentlessly emotional one, with stirring music non-stop on the soundtrack (or so it feels, anyway); if it were just a little less subtle you could easily call it a melodrama. Still, this isn’t the first Almodovar film you could call a bit melodramatic. Then there is the question of the unresolved conclusion of the film, which I would imagine seriously hacks off anyone who sits through the film’s heavy third act in the hope of a carthatic, affirmative ending with everything resolved. Personally, I think the ending works – it’s a bold choice, but it certainly feels like it suits the rest of the film.

I think it would be stretching a point to suggest that Julieta is quite up to the same standard as the films he was making in the late 1990s and early 2000s – it falls just a little short in terms of ambition, if not in execution, and it doesn’t have the same kind of audacity or life to it. Nevertheless, when even a slightly sub-par film is as good as this, it’s a sign that the person responsible is a director of the first rank. Even off-the-boil Almodovar is still a formidable talent.

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I have to admit the possibility that there may be people who have decided to Google for ‘Bad Education Movie’ in the hope of getting access to someone’s considered opinion of the forthcoming Hugh Jackman film (not actually on release yet, I think) – well, sorry, you’ve come to the wrong place. Nor is this the place to be should you (for whatever reason) be interested in the movie spin-off of the sitcom starring Jack Whitehall, which came out a few years ago (the temptation to say that if this is the case, you should maybe rethink some of your life choices, is almost irresistible). Seriously, they ought to do something about people re-using titles on films.

Anyway, the Bad Education we are here to discuss is the 2004 movie from Pedro Almodovar, originally known as La mala educacion. Not that this really does a great deal to eliminate potential confusion, as that’s just a direct translation into Spanish, of course. No Almodovar movie seems to be completely bereft of a certain kind of humour, but this is certainly one of his more serious films: perhaps that’s a big enough point of distinction. It’s not as if this is a film which it’s easy to mistake for anything else, though.

When I was writing about Talk to Her I ventured the suggestion that there was an undercurrent to it which was almost Hitchcockian in its tone and style – almost from the start, it seems that this influence has grown enormously, for the opening credits and music suggest nothing as much as an energetic pastiche of films from Hitchcock’s own late 50s-early 60s imperial phase. It takes a little while for this to show up in the actual story, though. Much of the film is set in 1980, and concerns (amongst others) Enrique (Fele Martinez), a film director looking for his next project. His ruminations are interrupted by the appearance of an old school friend named Ignacio (Gael Garcia Bernal). Ignacio is an actor and writer, looking for work, but he also leaves a short story entitled The Visit with Enrique – apparently it is a sort of roman-a-clef, partly based on their own experiences together.

The film then shifts its focus, apparently presenting the story of The Visit. This concerns fictionalised versions of Enrique (Alberto Ferreiro) and Ignacio (still Bernal), with the considerable difference that the Ignacio in the story is a transsexual nightclub singer, going by the name of Zahara. With the aid of her friend Paca (a brief but very big performance by Javier Camara), Zahara is out to get revenge on Manolo, the Catholic priest who abused her as a boy (the priest is played by Daniel Gimenez Cacho), intent on blackmailing him for the money that will pay for her sex-change surgery.

Obviously, this strikes a significant chord with the real-life Enrique, and brings back all kinds of memories of his childhood friendship – more than friendship – with Ignacio, a friendship which ended when Manolo had him expelled from the school they attended together. He decides to go ahead with the movie, even though Ignacio seems greatly changed to him, almost unrecognisable as the same person…

It all sounds relatively straightforward when you write it down like that, but Bad Education is really far from straightforward in terms of its narrative – I have skipped over some of the many ambiguities and sleights-of-hand in the plot; for instance, it’s not made at all obvious at first that Ignacio and Zahara are both played by Bernal. As the film progresses, it grows increasingly dense and subtle in its storytelling – there are, as you can see, lengthy flashback sequences, and also a film-within-the-film. Elements of these echo and repeat each other, and the line between the two is eventually elided, up to a point. This is a film you do have to give your full attention to, but Almodovar maintains an exemplary grip on what could have been an extravagantly confusing story.

Is it really valid for me to compare it to one of Hitchcock’s entertainments, though? Well, obviously Hitchcock never made a film as graphically explicit as this one, and it’s difficult to imagine him openly addressing material like transsexuality and child abuse, or even homosexuality, in one of his films. But, on the other hand, the tricky and repetitive structure of the film, the eventual appearance of long-buried blackmail and murder, and the fascination with identity – how well can you really know a person? How much can someone change, over time? – are all things one would easily associate with some of Hitchcock’s finest films. Pedro Almodovar has a reputation for making big, sensuous, emotional films dealing with issues of sex and gender, but it seems to me he has all the necessary tools in the kit to be considered a terrific director of thrillers, as well.

Nevertheless, this is one of his darker films. While there are some beautifully lyrically scenes early on, depicting the childhoods of the characters and everyday life in the school they attend, the tone grows steadily more serious as it progresses (Javier Camara’s big comic turn only appears in the early part of the film). There is still humanity in the film – the present-day version of Manolo, when he eventually appears, is a pitiable figure, and we are encouraged to pity him despite his terrible offences – but it is overall less optimistic and warm than in previous films, and the ending is inconclusive and ambiguous. Then again, perhaps there is no other choice here: the film is ultimately about the life-long emotional damage done by child abuse, and the ripple of collateral damage spreading out through the friends and acquaintances of those at the heart of it. Almodovar is too good a director to be excessively on-the-nose about this, but the shadows lie deeply on all the survivors at the end of this film, and the implication is clear. This is another well-acted, well-directed and exceptionally well-written film, dark and complex without feeling excessively grim or heavy: colourful and deft enough to be genuinely entertaining, but still a work shot through with a profound seriousness.

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Pedro Almodóvar’s 2002 film Talk to Her (title en Espanol: Talk to Her) opens rather theatrically, which may not come as a huge surprise to anyone familiar with this director – the curtain rises and we are treated to a display of interpretative dance from Pina Bausch. Watching it are the two main characters of the film, Benigno (Javier Camara) and Marco (Dario Grandinetti), although at this point they know each other as little as we know either of them. Marco is moved to tears by the performance, a fact which does not go unnoticed by Benigno.

Slowly a narrative begins to form, piecemeal and out of chronological order. Marco is a writer, mainly of travel books, though the story from his point of view starts when he is sent to do a piece on up-and-coming female matador Lydia (Rosario Flores). After an unpromising start, mainly because both of them are carrying baggage from previous relationships, romance seems to kindle between them.

Bullfighting is a bit of a cliché in many people’s idea of Spain, and it’s obviously a controversial topic. All that aside, Almodóvar’s presentation of scenes set in the bullring is exceptional – they are beautiful and grotesque at the same time, colourful and vibrant but also laced with horror. That the danger is not all on the bull’s side is reinforced when Lydia comes off second best in a bout with a bull and ends up in the intensive care unit of the local hospital, in what seems to be a persistent vegetative state – in other words, a coma, and one there is virtually no chance she will ever emerge from.

Marco, who has never been the most articulate of people, has no idea of how to cope with this, but finds himself making friends with Benigno, who is a private nurse employed on the same ward. His duties only extend to looking after one particular patient: Alicia (Leonor Watling), a dance student who was involved in a car accident. Benigno is clearly a deeply committed and very caring nurse, who happily talks to Alicia about everything going on in his life; he is completely unlike Marco. And yet the two of them do become friends.

However, this is a friendship that is soon to be put to the test. Not all is as it initially seems in these relationships, and the story is about to move into some very strange and dark territory…

Yes, I know, if two Almodóvar reviews in a week was a bit irregular, three in a fortnight in really pushing it. Well, I warn you, they’re reviving Bad Education this week, and thank your lucky stars I’m away on holiday the week this revival season concludes with Volver. What can I say? Blame the late-summer interesting-movie drought. And while I know I’m ridiculously late to the party, I’m still kicking myself for not checking Pedro Almodóvar’s back catalogue before now: he deserves every bit of his reputation.

Talk to Her is, first and foremost, a really excellent movie, fully deserving of its reputation as one of the best made so far this century. However, it is also one of those films it is somewhat difficult to write about in detail without venturing into spoiler territory. I turned up to watch it with only the vaguest idea of what the story was about – the non-chronological nature of the plot means that the Wikipedia plot summary isn’t especially rewarding if you only skim read it – and the fact that it’s almost impossible to predict which way the story will go at any given moment is one of the pleasures of the film. You really want to know as little about the story in advance as you can manage.

So what can I really say about Talk to Her? Well, the first thing is that this is not quite the schmaltzy romantic melodrama it looks like it’s going to be – in fact, Almodóvar is relatively restrained when it comes to the plotting this time around; there are none of the outrageous coincidences that often pop up in his scripts. His subtlety and playfulness are still entirely intact, and you could argue that for much of the film he is cheerfully engaged in misdirecting the audience, turning their expectations against them. You are watching it and enjoying what has so far been an engaging and very well-made romantic drama, touched with elements of tragedy, and then suddenly and without your really being aware of it, the film has taken on something of the aspect of a psychological thriller – the kind of film that Hitchcock might have felt moved to have a go at, had he spent twenty or thirty years in therapy. Elements of the story which have previously been wholly innocuous suddenly look horribly suspect, and you question just exactly what kind of people some of these characters are.

It works as well as it does because of the brilliant performances given by the two leads – the two women in the comas are also good, but perforce have rather limited scope to participate in the film. Camara is very good in a hugely challenging part, managing to find all the subtlety it requires; Grandinetti has the tough job of playing someone who isn’t naturally very demonstrative, but finds the chinks in the armour that make it work. But the magic of the film is in the scripting and direction – as mentioned, there is a very black cheerfulness at work here, and an immense deftness when it comes to tone (just when you think you have the film figured out, Almodóvar throws in the eye-popping silent movie vignette).

But perhaps the most impressive thing about it is Almodóvar’s ability to retain his humanity and compassion even in a film which deals with topics as dark as the ones here. There is always room for subtlety, no-one is wholly good or bad, they are simply human and worthy of at least a little understanding. And beyond this, he even manages to conclude the film on a quiet moment of hopeful promise, something that would have seemed impossible only a short time before. As I said, Talk to Her is an excellent movie in every way.

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Whether or not you feel the last few weeks have seen a bit of a drought when it comes to interesting and worthwhile filmgoing experiences is, of course, a matter of taste, but there are signs of an upturn of sorts (although again, you may find your mileage varying). You do not often find films like Pedro Almodóvar’s Pain and Glory (title Espanol: Dolor y Gloria) turning up in UK multiplex cinemas, but here it is – is it simply because of the director’s formidable reputation, acquired through decades of quality work? Or is there honestly not much else around to occupy that particular screen? One would like to think the former.

Yes, I know: you wait nearly ten years for an Almodóvar film to be reviewed and then two turn up in the same week. What can I say? The first thing that makes Pain and Glory a slightly odd fit for the typical multiplex is, obviously, that it is in Spanish, the second is that it is also really an art house movie. It features a couple of famous performers, but it doesn’t fit easily into any particular genre and is arguably not the most accessible of films, on a number of levels. I won’t say the film is one long in-joke, not least because it isn’t actually a comedy, but a degree of familiarity with Pedro Almodóvar’s life and works will probably help you to appreciate where the film is coming from.

Antonio Banderas plays Salvador Mello, the world’s most famous Spanish film director, who as the film opens has not made a movie for some time, primarily for health reasons (or so he says). His rather listless existence receives a jolt when he is informed that one of his films from thirty years ago is to be revived, and presented to a new audience by the lead actor (Asier Etxeandia) – to whom Mello hasn’t spoken since it was finished, following a big row between the two.

(Already there are multiple layers of self-referentiality and irony going on here for the in-the-know – it is fairly clear who the character of the world’s most famous Spanish film director is based on, and the plot is likewise informed by the fact that Banderas and Almodóvar had a major falling out when the actor – who Almodóvar discovered – went off to make English-language movies, and didn’t work together for twenty years afterwards.)

Well, one thing leads to another and Salvador finds himself reconnecting with all manner of people from his past, from artistic collaborators to his first real boyfriend (Leonardo Sbaraglia). He also picks up a bit of a drug habit, which seems to lead to his having vivid dreams about his youth half a century earlier, and the fraught relationship between his parents (his mother is played by Penelope Cruz, another actor with a long track record of working with this director). But is this all just a sign of a slightly sick man settling into a premature decline? Or can Mello find a way to get himself out of this slump?

It quickly becomes apparent that Pain and Glory has little of the colour and vibrancy that many of Almodóvar’s most famous films are distinguished by. This is a sober, restrained piece of work, both introspective and retrospective – it’s very hard not to interpret it as the director looking back on his life and career, with appearances from other actors who he has worked with in the past – Cecilia Roth, from All About My Mother, has a small cameo, for instance. It almost seems to have a valedictory quality, which is surely a bit premature given that Almodóvar is not yet 70.

However, the film retains much of the clever playfulness and subtlety of his best-known films, not to mention his fondness for outrageously implausible plotting. Almodóvar is never afraid of using a credibility-strangling coincidence to move one of his scripts along, and this happens here in a couple of places too. The trick is that you become so invested in the characters and their situations that you suspend your disbelief, and this does happen here as usual – it’s curious to think that Anglophone audiences tend to think of Antonio Banderas as either a light comedian or (more bizarrely) an action hero. Perhaps Almodóvar’s imprecations that he would waste his talent in Hollywood had some truth to them, for here he gives a very strong and rounded dramatic performance, in what can’t have been especially easy circumstances (he is essentially embodying the writer-director of the film).

I note that Penelope Cruz has managed to wangle herself the ‘with the special collaboration of’ credit on this movie, which I’m guessing is the Spanish version of ‘special guest star’ and indicates the actor is doing the director a favour by turning up. Well, her charm and ability are undiminished and she is also caught up in the artifice of the film’s structure – towards the end the distinction between the film’s flashback sequences and its present day setting is knowingly collapsed, raising the possibility that Cruz is not just playing the Almodóvar-substitute’s mother, but playing herself playing that role – but this is not dwelt upon unduly.

If our thesis is correct, and Pain and Glory is really an introspective film about Pedro Almodóvar considering his own life and the key moments and relationships within it, do we learn much? Well, it does seem that the director is feeling his age a bit, but also that he has lost none of his warmth and compassion, nor his willingness to be open about some of the more intimate elements of his life – if the film is to be interpreted in these terms, the suggestion is that he may not have had the easiest of relationships with his parents, for instance. However, you could certainly argue that the film is arguing that it is through human contact that life acquires genuine significance – it is through recollecting his own first real romance, and before that the initial awakening of his sexual desire, that Salvador begins to find the answers to his own problems and sets out on the path to a kind of redemption.

This is a film about getting older and considering the choices you have made along the way, but it is also an ultimately humane and optimistic one. It is a more measured Almodóvar than has perhaps been the case sometimes in the past, but the director’s skill is still fully in evidence. This is a fine and often moving drama.

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I occasionally make a wistful observation hereabouts concerning all the apparently great film directors and classic movies which I have yet to properly come to grips with – it wasn’t all that long ago that I’d never seen a film by Andrei Tarkovsky, for instance – and that small aspirational part of my brain (the bit that lies when I fill in questionnaires about my taste in books and films) should by rights feel good, as I can announce that another of the big names of world cinema can be crossed off the list – finally, I have caught up with a Pedro Almodóvar movie.

Well, I should qualify this by saying that Almodóvar is enjoying a fairly high UK profile at present, mainly because he has a new movie out – he’s still an arthouse darling rather than properly mainstream, of course, and so the new film is nowhere near as inescapable as Tarantino’s recent offering turned out to be – and I’m guessing that the revival of his 1999 movie Todo Sobre Mi Madre (All About My Mother) is connected to this. Still, if there’s one thing better than finally catching up with a film by one of the world’s great directors, I suppose it must be watching two of his films in the space of a couple of days.

 

It initially seems like the mother in All About My Mother is going to turn out to be Manuela (Cecilia Roth), for as the film begins she is living with her teenage son in Madrid. She is a nurse, but still has fond memories of her youth when she was an amateur actress. But then – and this is when summarising the plot gets a bit tricky, for there is clearly intended to be a big shock early on, the thing which launches the story proper – events conspire to put her life onto a different track. She finds herself returning to Barcelona, where she lived when she was younger, in search of her son’s father, whom she hasn’t seen since before he was born.

Up until this point it has been clear that this is a film made with great skill and subtlety, but now something new enters the mix and makes it especially distinctive. Manuela can’t find her ex, but bumps into an old friend named Agrado (Antonia San Juan), a transsexual prostitute whom she happens to rescue from being beaten by a client. As if this wasn’t a bold enough narrative step in all sorts of ways, Manuela’s attempts to continue her search see her getting involved in the lives of various other equally eye-opening characters – an on-the-way-up Penelope Cruz plays Rosa, a naïve young nun who has managed to end up pregnant by the father of Manuela’s child (who is, needless to say, another transsexual prostitute, this one with HIV). When Manuela stumbles into a job without really looking for one, it is as the personal assistant to an ageing lesbian actress (Marisa Paredes) involved in a somewhat fraught relationship with a much younger woman who is a drug addict (Candela Pena). Life gets complicated even without finding the object of her search.

As you can perhaps see, there is no actual shortage of candidates for the title role in this film – which appears to be an allusion to All About Eve, a film which two of the characters are watching while the actual title card comes up – and what makes the issue even more ambiguous is Almodóvar’s closing dedication for the movie, which is to ‘all actresses who have played actresses. To all women who act. To men who act and become women. To all the people who want to be mothers. To my mother’ – a fairly broad cross-section there.

That said, one thing the film is notably short of is unambiguously male main characters (there are a few minor male parts which make a significant contribution to the story), and you could certainly view it as an attempt to cover all the bases and include all aspects of both femininity and maternity, one way or another: under this reading, the whole film is a kind of extended meditation on the nature of motherhood and womanhood, one of considerable generosity and compassion. This is one of those very non-judgemental, essentially optimistic films we see all too rarely.

The other thing that makes the film so striking is something that I’ve alluded to already – overall, it has a warmth and naturalism to it that is very engaging, especially when coupled to the artful subtlety of the script. This does feel like a film set in some close analogue of the real world, with interesting things to say about it, and Manuela herself is a fully convincing character, brought well to life by Cecilia Roth. However, most of the rest of the characters are slightly outlandish, to say the least – any one of them would be the wacky or off-kilter supporting role in a more conventional film, and to have them all together here in the same film – sometimes in the same scene – is an interesting choice by the director. Then again, Almodóvar isn’t afraid to make this film a genuine melodrama, loading it with outrageously emotive moments, vastly improbable coincidences, implausible plot twists, and much more along the same lines.

His real trick is to do so without turning the film into something which functions only as an outrageous piece of over-the-top camp. There are elements of the story which probably don’t hold up under close scrutiny, certainly not as a piece of conventional drama – but such is the skill of the director and performers that the film remains genuinely engrossing and moving on those terms. It packs a genuine emotional punch in its key moments, despite everything I’ve mentioned; only at the very end does it seem to come a bit unravelled, with relatively little sense of closure.

This comes too late to genuinely impact on what is, by any standard, an extremely well-written and performed movie, which manages to touch on some quite profound subject matter without being unnecessarily didactic or profound. It is true that the truly remarkably subtle and intelligent movie promised by some elements of the opening sequence never quite materialises (a scene in which we see Manuela playing a role is closely paired with one where she finds herself in essentially the same situation for real), but there is a huge amount to enjoy and think about here regardless; this is an engrossing and rewarding film, clearly made for an intelligent and mature audience.

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