By Jo Egan, playwright and co-founder of MACHA Productions
A grizzled Antonio Banderas portrays Salvador Mallo, a man in both physical and mental pain. Salvador’s been asked to co-host the 30th anniversary screening of his film Sabor, with the film’s star, Alfredo.
The problem being; they haven’t spoken in 30 years owing to Alfredo playing a different character to the one Salvador scripted, apparently mirroring the tensions between director Pedro Almodóvar and Banderas on The Skin I Live In (2011).
Salvador approaches Alfredo, an aging party-animal, still chasing the dragon and asks him to co-host the screening. During the visit Salvador takes heroin to lessen both his back pain and his all-consuming melancholy. Heroin becomes our portal to the past where we experience his impoverished but beautiful childhood.
One flashback reveals four women scrubbing laundry at the riverbank: Salvador’s mother kneels with little Salvador sitting on her back. The women wring out sheets and tent them over bushes to dry in the hot Spanish sun. The women sing a pleasant, peasant ditty in four-part harmony. The scene exhibits the grinding poverty of Franco’s Spain whilst seducing us with the vivacity and beauty of the moment. It’s only when we see heroin being introduced as the portal to the past that we begin to question what Almodóvar is up to? Spain’s current support for fascism is its most outspoken since Franco’s death so you’re left wondering if Almodóvar is provoking comment on the public idealisation of the fascist past and linking it to Salvador’s idealisation of beautiful memories invoked by heroin.
Nevertheless, the experience of watching the film soothes the spirit. Banderas’s pared back melancholic performance, permits him to move us back and forth in time with ease. In interview, Banderas says he created the character from a place of economy, starting from zero and building the character sparingly.
Sublimely skilled performances also from Asier Etxeandia who plays Alberto, Leonardo Sbaraglia plays the romantic blast from the past: Frederico. Julieta Serrano and Penelope Cruz play Salvador’s mother. Penelope Cruz, an ever-luminous screen presence is just not on the screen for long enough.
Plot-wise the film is more a series of vignettes rather than a journey with characters. Salvador reveals what he wants us to see, brings us to the choices he makes; be that to take heroin or to conveniently stop it when he decides to pull himself together. A stunning soundtrack by Alberto Iglesias operates at times like a hypnotic meditation, at other times, a cinematic sweep. And the trademark Almodóvar style; colour and more colour, exquisitely placed, and even in old age, brimming with life.
If you love Almodóvar you’ll be glad of the fix but some will be disappointed by the slightly weak plot-line and lack of any real drama. It’s a luxurious watch, visually exotic, beautifully performed with an all-consuming score. Lots to relish but not as memorable as some of his other films.
• Pain and Glory – showing at the Queen’s Film Theatre, Belfast, until September 5. For further details go to https://bit.ly/2Hww2jL
• Also showing at the Strand Cinema, Belfast, from August 30 to September 5 – https://www.strandartscentre.com/movies/pain-and-glory/