Pain and Glory strikes me as an ironic title for what I loved as the most tender Pedro Almodóvar film I’ve seen. It sometimes seems that Almodóvar oscillates between films about men (some of which are directly autobiographical) and films about women (and therefore about characters that remind him of the female stars that he adored as a child). But it’s also the case that many of the films are about Pedro’s mother and the other ‘real’ women of his childhood and adolescence. Pain and Glory is in some ways reminiscent of Bad Education (2004) in that it focuses on the childhood experiences of a man who grows up to be a film director and his relationships with other men. But whereas in that earlier film, there is much anger and even violence, in this new film there seems to be acceptance, friendship and love as the filmmaker ages. I think anyone ‘of an age’ like Almodóvar – approaching 70 – will have an understanding of some of the emotions of the central character played by Antonio Banderas.
The outline plot of the film is relatively straightforward (no spoilers here). Salvador Mallo, the Banderas character is a 60 something man with various physical ailments who has lost his creative energy but who lives well in a beautiful apartment (beautifully designed with paintings, fabrics and bold colours) with a maid (an indigenous woman from Latin America?) and his former production assistant/manager Mercedes (Nora Navas) both regularly visiting him. One day he learns from an actor (played by Almodóvar regular Cecilia Roth) that one of his early films has been restored and that several cinemas want to screen it. Salvador is invited to join in a Q&A following a screening. The only drawback is that the cinema would like to invite both Salvador and the star of the film, Alberto Crespo (Asier Etxeandia) – and the two men have not spoken since the film was completed more than thirty years ago. Salvador decides he must meet Alberto privately before any public meeting. Having decided to resurrect something from the past, Salvador also finds a way to re-visit his own memories so that we can experience moments of his childhood in which his mother Jacinta is played by Penélope Cruz. In the present, Jacinta is played by another stalwart from Almodóvar’s earlier films, Julieta Serrano.
Almodovar’s handling of the narrative drive is so accomplished that even though the pacing is sometimes quite slow, I was always completely engaged by the ‘action’ and never worrying or wondering what might happen next. I suspect that if it was possible to tear myself away from the screen all the events of the narrative would become predictable and many would turn out to have appeared in his films before. So there are priests (bad, as in Bad Education), a village scene with the women working (as in Volver), a beautiful young man to lust after, doctor’s waiting rooms, a cinema audience, films on TV etc. But none of this matters because the mise en scène is glorious, the performances are sublime, the music (by Alberto Iglesias) is great and the cinematography is by José Luis Alcaine. And most of all, I believe in what Salvador feels and what he does.
There are excellent pieces in Sight and Sound (September 2019) by Paul Julian Smith and Maria Delgado, both reliable and acute commentators on Spanish cinema. They have spotted things I couldn’t see on a single viewing and they are able to connect scenes in the film with contemporary political and social issues in Spain. I recommend them highly. For my part, I’m simply glad that Pedro Almodóvar is still making films and most of all that the films seem to get better each time. Whatever ‘blocks’ Salvador experiences as a director, they don’t seem to visit Pedro. I’ve seen friends’ enthusiasm for Almodóvar wax and wane over the years, but for me he has never failed. He is, as Paul Julian Smith, observed on the release of the film in Spain, the only filmmaker guaranteed to bring in audiences of all kinds in Spain with virtually no promotion. Penélope Cruz grows more beautiful with every film. If she and Banderas continue to be as good as this, I hope Almodóvar will be encouraged to keep going.
Pain and Glory opens in North America on October 4th. I hope it is a big hit there too:
God’s Own Country is a terrific film and one of the very best to be released in 2017. It has two standout lead performances, ably supported by two ever-reliable industry vets. It looks wonderful and tells an emotional story with limited dialogue and enormous power. It will be discussed partly because of the gay love story at its centre, but also because it’s a story about small farmers in rural Britain – an increasingly marginalised group in the UK (although it’s one of three such films this year with the earlier The Levelling and Dark River to follow). You’ll read a lot about the film as it picks up prizes so I’ll concentrate on my personal response to a film made on the moors close to my home.
For readers outside the UK, the film’s title refers to some Yorkshire people’s sense of their home county (it’s the biggest of the traditional English counties). I’m assuming it’s ironic in many ways since the writer-director Francis Lee seems quite sensible as well as being highly talented. He’s had a career as an actor in British theatre, film and television and this is his first feature after a trio of well-received shorts. His work with two young and highly promising actors demonstrates his understanding and empathy. Perhaps surprisingly in a film so carefully located in the director’s own backyard (Lee was brought up on a farm near Halifax and the main locations for his film are all around Keighley, just a few miles away), the three actors playing the farming family are not local. Josh O’Connor (one of the UK’s rising young actors to watch), who plays the central character Johnny, is from Cheltenham and he is the one under most scrutiny as a young farmer. Lee sent him, and the Romanian actor Alec Secareanu, to work on local farms for some intensive acclimatisation to livestock farming in the Pennines. It certainly paid off and the farm work looks genuine to this non-farmer. Johnny’s father is played by the Liverpudlian actor Ian Hart and his grandmother by the Londoner Gemma Jones. These two simply make sure the family is a credible working unit. Francis Lee knows the location and he knows actors, so his film narrative has a sound basis. The narrative itself is fairly straightforward – Johnny has stayed on the family farm while some of his friends from school have gone to university. It’s a hard life and socially isolating on the farm, especially when his father has a stroke and everything falls on Johnny in terms of physical work. His only respite is swift casual sexual encounters and fierce binge drinking in the village pub. In classic genre style this is all changed when the smoothly handsome and very capable Gheorghe arrives as a temporary hired hand. It’s to the film’s credit, I think, that Georghe is represented as a skilled worker and not as stereotypical migrant labour. But Georghe is more than a skilled worker, he is also an intelligent and sensitive young man – and just what Johnny needs. But can Johnny develop a relationship and sustain it? That’s the narrative enigma.
The film is a gay romance and that might be part of its attraction as a different kind of story since many such romances, especially for younger characters, are urban affairs. I’m not sure the many references to Brokeback Mountain from journalists and reviewers are helpful – the narratives are not that similar apart from sheep and ‘isolation’. The love story in God’s Own Country is universal. It’s also the case that the isolation Johnny experiences is nuanced. Johnny may be a Pennine hill farmer, but in reality he only lives a mile or two from a large town (this area for the last two hundred years or so has mixed the agrarian and the industrial cheek by jowl). His sense of isolation is social and psychological, not geographical. At the beginning of the story he is a character with wild energy but he’s sullen and not very likeable. Josh O’Connor handles his development as a man very well.
I only have one quibble with Francis Lee. He says very clearly that he didn’t want the landscape to look ‘beautiful’. I can understand why, coming from an upland farm, Lee wants to stress how a young person might feel. But for those of us who don’t have to deliver lambs out on the moor in all weathers, this land is beautiful – and in fact there is a scene in which Georghe makes this point. It’s worth noting that these are the moors on which the Brontë sisters might have tramped, but few of the film or TV versions of the Brontë novels have actually been shot here with filmmakers selecting similar, but still different, moors elsewhere. The credit for the film’s look also goes to cinematographer Joshua James Richards who is also having great success with American landscapes for Chloé Zhao, whose 2017 film The Rider is about a young cowboy in heartland America. Francis Lee can obviously attract talented collaborators. God’s Own Country is a must see film, both rivetingly ‘real’ and also romantic. I can’t wait to see what he will do next.