In an era when comic book heroes and car chases dominate our big screens, there is one auteur with the sort of rock-star status among film fans that Fellini and Bergman had in the '70s heyday of the arthouse repertory cinema. Pedro Almodovar is one of the few directors whose name still gets people through doors.
A young Antonio Banderas with Rossy de Palma in Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown.
Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown (1988), his first big international hit, was like a sherbet explosion on screen: a frothy surprise, veering giddily between sharpness and sweetness and gloriously, unnaturally brightly coloured. It was also, as many of his films would be, dominated by women: spunky, witty, capable women who lived every second at maximum intensity and were central to Almodovar’s vision of Spain. That vision has become ours. According to the Box Office Mojo website, his films have grossed $US369.9 million ($544.93 million) worldwide.
Much has been made of the fact that the comparatively sombre Pain and Glory, which was unveiled earlier this year in Cannes to rapturous reviews, is Almodovar’s most personal testament. At its centre is a film director who shares his author’s migraines, back pain, lost love and devotion to his mother’s memory. It takes place largely in an exact studio replica of Almodovar’s own predictably colourful flat, correct down to the art collection hanging on the walls, where the said director isolates himself with his ailments and angst.
Pedro Almodovar and Antonio Banderas have worked together since the 1980s. Credit:Universal Pictures
Antonio Banderas, a friend since Almodovar picked him out of a crowd scene in a Lope de Vega play to star in his second feature film, Labyrinth of Passion (1982), plays the character now called Salvador Lallo. There is no question that Lallo is an alter ego. He even wears Almodovar’s clothes.
But all of Almodovar’s films have been, if not exactly about him, certainly flesh of his flesh: each film is a slice of his life as a gay Madrilenian artist, transubstantiated into cinema that is vibrant, sexually charged and brazenly melodramatic.
All About My Mother, 1999.
Almodovar came of age under the ossified rule of dictator General Franco. The films he made in his boisterous youth – Law of Desire (1987), Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down (1989) – were a hedonistic two-fingered goodbye to all that, while the films of his middle age – All About My Mother (1999), Talk to Her (2002) – searched out other kinds of tumult in family conflicts and the play of memory.
Antonio Banderas plays a film director not unlike Pedro Almodovar in Pain and Glory.Credit:Universal PIctures
Now he is 70. He has to wear sunglasses to the cinema because his migraines mean he is hyper-sensitive to light. He isn’t stopping making films – in fact, when he realised that critics were suggesting that Pain and Glory read like a final summing up, he made a point of telling Indiewire he has three projects, including his first in English, in the pipeline – but he is taking stock.
Anyway, while Salvador is a version of Almodovar, this is not his story. Salvador’s pain is preventing him from working. He has had back surgery that, along with all his other conditions, has plunged him into a depressive fear that he will not be physically able to make another film. He has tinnitus and digestive troubles as well as the aforementioned migraines. So he stops work, which certainly is not Almodovar’s story.
He also tries to make amends with an old actor called Alberto (Asier Etxeandia) with whom he hasn’t spoken for 30 years, ostensibly because the actor was using heroin while working for him after promising to stop. In the course of their reconciliation, Salvador tries smoking heroin himself and is soon addicted. That part is fictional, even if it may be something he could have imagined happening in a parallel universe. Salvador is also reunited with his first love, now living in Argentina, through a series of wild coincidences typical of an Almodovar narrative, but not of real life.
Come to that, Almodovar has never experienced a creative crisis. ‘‘But I know what it is to be held by the insecurity of making a movie,’’ he says. ‘‘That is part of a process: that you don’t know if this movie is going to be the last one, not because you are going to die but just because I don’t know if I will be inspired or feel the same passion. It is not exactly a creative crisis, but you’re scared. Scared you won’t find it again.’’ And Salvador’s loneliness, which is so palpable as to be like another character in its own right, is his own constant familiar.
It is not exactly a creative crisis, but you’re scared. Scared you won’t find it again.
‘‘This is also linked to pain, when you stay at home and don’t answer the phone, don’t socialise and don’t see your friends; at some point people start calling you less and you end up being alone,’’ he says. Writing is a solitary activity anyway. ‘‘This is something I’ve accepted for years now – I’ve been living alone and I don’t mind it – but now I’m making efforts to open up a bit. Because there comes a moment when you are accustomed to be alone – and is that good when you are getting older? That to be alone is something natural for you?’’
It was this admission of vulnerability that startled Antonio Banderas when he first read the script. ‘‘I have been friends with Pedro Almodovar for 38 years, but that friendship is in a very specific universe and that universe has limits that you never cross,’’ he says. ‘‘Pedro is a very private person and there are aspects of his life he doesn’t share. I couldn’t believe that he went that far. That he was trying to apologise to his mother: this movie is more Almodovar than Almodovar in a way, because it is about those things he would love to have said but never did. I know, because he has told me that he never said to his mother ‘you know, I am sorry to be the way I am, that I am not the son you wanted to have’. He would love to have said that.’’
Antonio Banderas and Elena Anaya in The Skin I Live In. Banderas and Almodovar argued constantly during the shoot.
‘‘It’s true,’’ Almodovar agrees. ‘‘I am very modest, even with my friends, so I suppose there are parts of my life I refer to in the film that were a surprise for him. I never thought I was going to make a film about myself. But when I started, I realised I found the material fascinating. And once I made that decision, fiction came along very quickly and automatically.’’ Some events in the film happened, but to someone else; some of the conversations Salvador has with his mother were actually with one or other of his sisters.
‘‘The very fact of writing puts a distance between you and what you are writing. And when we were shooting, I had no impression at all that Antonio was representing me. I think it would be very strange to feel that you are directing somebody who is playing a moment of your life and then have to explain to them how to do it, but I wasn’t at all in that state of mind. I was just doing my job, which is directing my actors to get the best from them.’’
Director and actor had a 20-year break from each other after Banderas went to Hollywood at the age of 31 and parlayed his thick Spanish accent into films with a Hispanic bent – The Mambo Kings (1992), Desperado (1995), Evita (1996) – and swashbucklers from Zorro to Shrek’s Puss in Boots. When he returned to Spain to play a manipulative plastic surgeon in Almodovar’s psychological chiller The Skin I Live In (2011), he says he was full of tricks of his trade learned in front of studio cameras. ‘‘I was very cocky, thinking ‘look what I can do now! How secure I am in front of the camera! Look what I can do with my voice!’ And Pedro said ‘I am not interested in any of those things. Where are you? Where is Antonio?’ ’’
Pedro Almodovar.Credit:Brad Torchia
They argued constantly but, when he saw the film, Banderas saw that his old mentor had been right all along. For Pain and Glory, ‘‘I went with my ears and eyes open, without the tools I know I can use, without anything. Trying to get rid of the old Antonio Banderas and start creating something from scratch and it’s painful, because you feel very insecure.’’ His performance, which is indisputably a career best, won him a best actor award in Cannes this year.
Despite the rough ride they had a few years before, Almodovar knew that he wanted Banderas to play Salvador. ‘‘He was a witness of all my life, my adult life, so many of the things referred to in the film are things he experienced himself with me,’’ he says. He also had faith that Banderas understood the toll exacted by chronic pain after having survived a heart attack two years ago.
‘‘He was operated on, three times. And although he is a very cheerful person, what you can see is that on his face there are still signs of this pain.’’ There was strain; there was also a melancholy that he told the 59-year-old Banderas would not only contribute to the character, but made him more attractive.
Banderas is aware of it himself. ‘‘When you have an event like that, something is left behind.’’ It isn’t just the fact he can’t eat steak any more, but a psychological shift. ‘‘The most important thing is that you value the really important things and everything else dissipates or drops away. All that matters are my daughter, my friends, my career as an actor. You also start being more selective about the things that you want to do. You say ‘well, I want to be young again from an acting point of view. I want to search, I want to learn, I want to be as curious as I was, I want to find myself again.’ You start digging and digging. And if you have a person like Almodovar close to you, it helps you to do that.’’
Almodovar admits he told Banderas that if he found anything difficult to express, he should just copy him. “And he said ‘no, I don’t think that will be necessary; I will do it as an actor’ and this is what he did.” Suggesting an actor simply mimic the director is certainly cutting him down to size; perhaps there is some clue here as to why Almodovar has had such spectacular fallings-out with some of the old friends who were members of his loose ensemble.
“I think Alberto is kind of a Frankenstein made up of many, many different actors and actresses," Banderas says. "At some point he wanted to ask them for forgiveness.” No, he corrects himself, not forgiveness “because there is nothing to forgive”, but to resolve their differences somehow. In one monologue, Salvador is permitted to explain Pedro's uncertainties and sensitivities. “He is almost saying ‘I give you my soul’," Banderas goes on. "This is my way to give you an apology.”
He laughs aloud when I ask if Almodovar owes him an apology for anything. “He would never recognise that! But no, I don’t think so. I wouldn’t even accept it, because when you work with Almodovar you are searching for the truth – his truth, but the truth. And all I have for him is nothing but gratitude. If my life would have been the eight movies I have done with Pedro Almodovar, it would have been worth being an actor. Really. I mean it. He doesn’t have to ask me for anything.”
Pain and Glory opens on November 7.
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