Pedro Almodovar – the gifted Spanish auteur behind such modern classics as Volver, Talk To Her, All About My Mother, and Bad Education – does some very serious soul searching in his latest work, Pain And Glory. The story of Salvador Mallo, a successful filmmaker in his mid-sixties forced to appraise both his life and the films that have defined it when he meets up with a former collaborator, the moving but amusing drama is nakedly autobiographical and self-reflexive.
But just how much of Almodovar is there in Mallo? “I started writing it thinking of myself, and in one specific situation,” the director replies. “And, of course, the memories of the character belong to me. But, how can I say? You cannot see the movie in a literal way. I mean, it’s me, but it’s also fiction. Once fiction appears in the narrative, it takes mastery of the narrative, and you have to be loyal to the fiction, and not loyal to reality because the story has to be likely to have happened. What matters, for me at least, is that I’ve been on the path that Salvador is on, but I haven’t been necessarily going in the same direction as he has, and I haven’t done what he has done always. So I could say that maybe 20% of what you see is a direct projection of my personal memories.”
Pain And Glory pretty much poured forth from the director, though it was more like a long-flowing river than a burst dam of creativity. “It was among the quickest scripts that I’ve written, but that doesn’t mean that it just came at once,” Almodovar explains. “I actually started writing about my back pain. So that was the first impulse. And so it started with the scene of the character underwater with no muscular tension. That was the beginning. But I also have small pieces that are sitting there on my computer that I hope, some day, I can integrate into some script. One idea was this meeting of a director with a former actor with whom he’s worked before, and he goes to see him and it’s a very violent, brutal meeting between the two men. So I had this text already written that I hadn’t been able to integrate into other stories before. Then I also had the story around the child, which I had written twenty years before, and a monologue about the 1980s. So I had these three pieces already there. So when I say that it came quickly, it’s because the three texts that I couldn’t force into any other scripts finally found their perfect place. They really came together in a very organic and natural way. So it was the perfect way of articulating these three stories with this very personal story. It came very naturally. I just know how to put stories together.”
Appropriately, playing Salvador Mallo is Antonio Banderas, Almodovar’s longtime friend and the star of his films, The Skin I Live In, Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!, and Law Of Desire. The actor was always Almodovar’s first choice for the part. “I needed to have a talk to him before though, because I was conscious of what I wanted,” the director explains. “From him, I think, it was completely different from what we did in the past, or even the movies that he did in America. I wanted to try to talk to him about this before asking him to take the part. But he understood that immediately when he read the script. He realised what’s needed for the character. It was something very different from what we did in the 1980s, for example. It’s a very original performance from Antonio and, at the same time, it was the easier work for me as a director.”
The often fraught bond between the actor and director (who have certainly had their disagreements over the years) was strengthened even further on Pain And Glory. “I think that he was connected in that kind of beautiful way that I was not conscious of, but he was leading that process of being completely impregnated by me,” Almodovar offers. “But I didn’t do anything. Just be myself. I mean, I told him exactly what I wanted in every little minute, but he did it by himself. I mean, he guessed, and he was right. And that surprised me when we were shooting, doing gestures that I didn’t recognise from Antonio, and that they were perfect for that character. For me, it was a kind of discouragement because I thought that I should push him to this new subtle way of acting without [being] epic and without bravado, without this kind of intensity that is his trademark. But no…he did it like himself from the beginning. So I was very surprised and very grateful.”
Also appropriately, Salvador’s mother – in a series of flashbacks – is played by another luminous Almodovar muse in the form of Penelope Cruz, who has starred in the director’s Volver and All About My Mother, amongst others. “It was very moving because Penelope’s really like a part of my family, and since we started working together more than 20 years ago, we have always had a very close relationship,” the director explains. “I love her a lot and I know that she really loves me deeply. And when I finished the script, I immediately thought about Penelope. This mother is very different from the mother she performed in Volver. But, I mean, both of them are survivors, and fighters, but they belonged to a different period of Spain. In Volver, she is a contemporary woman, so it’s very sexy. But in this one, it’s a Spanish mother of the early sixties, which was a very bad period for Spanish families. She has to live in that cave which, for the kid, is wonderful, because it’s like a fairy tale. But for a cleaning lady, it is something tragic. She’s great, and I’m very happy to have her in the movie because, also, part of this kind of biographical part of the movie is that I try to be surrounded by people that are like my artist family. There is an emotional familiarity with the actors.”
Pain And Glory will screen at The Melbourne International Film Festival on August 4, 12 and 18. For all ticketing and venue information, head to the official website.