It’s to be expected that Pain And Glory would get a huge turnout at the VIFF. Pedro Almodovar is a darling of the arthouse film world. The buzz is this time, he’s reuniting with Antonio Banderas for the first time in over 30 years. Is it worth the hype?
The film is told by the first-person view of film director Salvador Mallo. Salvador is in a pool meditating alone. He has had open-heart surgery in the past. He’s had issues involving both his family and his sexuality in his past. He became renowned through his breakthrough film Sabor– a still beloved in its current remastering — but considers every film since to be a failure. He’s also had issues with back pain and other medical issues. All of this has caused a struggle to get inspired again with filming. He knows he has to, but he can’t. Not even as his landmark film Sabor (‘flavor’ in Spanish) has been remastered and re-released.
Over time, he learns he has to make peace with his past. He first reflects back to his childhood. His mother was the biggest influence in his life. As a child, he was a dreamer and his mother always fancied him to be one. He did great in academic studies, but he had a love for singing and a special love for movie stars. He was sent over to a convent school; something that was of great expense to his mother. However he also reflects to the last days he was with his mother. He was so consumed with his filmwork and his writing, he was negligent to his ailing mother. He did however promise he would take her back to the countryside where she could spend her last days, but she died before he could.
As his film Sabor is being re-released and even shown to film enthusiast, he reunites with Alberto Crespo, the lead actor of the film. Mallo hasn’t spoken to Crespo in 30 years because of his perceived ‘bad’ performance in the film. Crespo is not happy to see him, but gets Mallo into smoking heroin. During his heroin-smoking, he’s able to recount some of his memories. One is of the time in his childhood when his parents had to move into a whitewashed cave house because of how poor they were. The mother hired a laborer to repaint the inside. As part of the deal, Salvador is to teach the illiterate laborer how to read and write.
Another flashback of past memories comes during a Q&A during a screening of Sabor. Mallo, at Crespo’s house at the time, is too down to attend, but corresponds with the crowd through Crespo’s phone. Crespo is able to tell the crowd of some of the wonderful memories of the 80’s and talks of Federico: Mallo’s boyfriend at the time. Federico is in the crowd and responds. That infuriates Mallo and he responds to Crespo violently. It just reminds him it’s another past memory he has to come to terms with. Mallo loved Federico and the two were almost inseparable, but Federico had a bad drug addiction at the time and Mallo had to end the relationship. The heroin abuse Mallo is addicted to is very similar to the struggle Federico went through during their time together. Eventually Federico and Mallo reconcile during a dinner. He learns Federico has sobered up since, moved to Buenos Aires, married a woman and fathered three children.
Over time, Mallo needs to recover from his own drug addiction and have further check-ups on his throat which causes him to choke for no reason. He knows his time is very limited, or feels strongly that it is. His assistant gives him tickets to an opening to an art gallery. Over at the opening, Salvador notices a drawing of a boy sitting with a book. That drawing isn’t any child. It’s Salvador! It then reminds him of the time in Salvador’s childhood the laborer was drawing a picture of Salvador sitting with a book as a thank-you gift. Only his mother would later hide the drawing without Salvador’s knowledge. After the laborer finished, he needed to bathe. Salvador left to lie down in the bed from all the heat, but woke up to get the man a towel. When he saw the laborer naked, Salvador had a look of delightful surprise and fainted. The laborer thought Salvador fainted of heat stroke.
Soon Salvador is able to buy the drawing and he sees the thank-you message from the laborer on the back. His assistant recommends Salvador to find the laborer through a Google search, but Salvador feels it’s not worth the bother. Soon Salvador does go for the surgery to get the growth removed from his throat. The film goes to a scene to Salvador’s childhood of him with his mother waiting for a train during a village fiesta and watching the fireworks in awe. Only it’s not a flashback. It’s a scene from a film Salvador is directing about his past life. His desire to film has returned again!
When one watches the film, one can easily wonder if this is a film meant to be autobiographical of Almodovar himself? The life of Salvador does seem to mirror Almodovar’s own life in many ways. Pedro himself fell in love with films and movie stars as a child He was sent to a religious school as a boy in hopes of becoming a priest and was abused. Pablo is openly gay, and of course became a renowned film maker. Even the falling out between Salvador and Crespo is actually symbolic of the falling out between Almodovar and Banderas. However there are a lot of differences between Salvador and Pedro. Salvador appears to be born around 1960 while Pedro was born in 1949. Salvador is an only child raised by a mother and father who’s rarely there while Pedro was one of four raised by both parents; his father being alcoholic. Salvador appears to have had one masterpiece film while Pedro has had decades of masterpiece films. Also while Salvador appeared to lack inspiration and the drive to make films after illness and physical setbacks, Almodovar appeared to continue well.
Nevertheless it still gets one thinking. The film got me thinking does Almodovar see Women On The Verge Of A Nervous Breakdown, his breakthrough film outside of Spain, to be garbage or the bane of his existence to him? Artsy types are so full of self-loathing! Also I have not been too familiar with Almodovar’s health problems. I have not known of any health problems happening to Almodovar. If there are any problems, they have not been made too public. Almodovar has made his back problem open recently, but did he ever have that throat problem? And the drug addiction. I know addiction is common in Almodovar films, but I haven’t heard of Almodovar addicted to heroin smoking.
This film may not be the best film Pedro Almodovar has done, but it has to be his most personal. There are a lot of similarities between Salvador and Pedro. There are also some that become questioning. Was Almodovar ever hooked on heroin? Is Almodovar envisioning what he could have been if he were a one-hit-film-wonder? One thing about Almodovar’s films is that he doesn’t just tell a story. He creates a lot of moods and images as if he’s paining a cinematic portrait. He tries to get us to feel the characters, feel the moments, feel the emotions. He has the ability to romanticize even the most bizarre moments. Even a man who impregnates a comatose woman (in 2002’s Talk To Her). This film is no exception. He helps us see the story through the eyes of Salvador in both his flashbacks and of the present moment, and romanticizes it. This is another accomplishment for Almodovar. It’s no wonder he’s become a film festival darling.
The funny thing of the film is that the flashbacks of Salvador’s childhood appear to be flashbacks. However it’s at the end that we learn that the flashbacks of his childhood we see are the flashbacks intended for Salvador’s new film. Filming within a film. That should have been apparent when there was Penelope playing the younger version of the mother in the flashbacks while the older mother had blue or green eyes. It made you wonder how did that happen? Now you know at the end.
The film also marks a great return to Almodovar collaborating with Antonio Banderas. Those of us in North America remember how he became a huge movie star in the 1990’s. What many did not know is that it was through Almodovar’s films that Banderas had his breakthrough. I still remember how he played a husband in Women On The Verge Of A Nervous Breakdown. Banderas actually acted in five of Almodovar’s film before breaking into the US upon the release of Mambo Kings. It appears like both made the other’s success. Here they reconnect and Banderas delivers what could be his most intimate, if not his best, acting performance ever. He does an excellent job of adding dimension to the character of the filmmaker in all of his joys, his hurts and his passions. Also Banderas isn’t afraid to show the surgery scars from his own open-heart surgery here.
Asier Exteandia is also good at the actor Crespo who is able to make peace with him, albeit turbulently. Also a delight to watch is Asier Flores as young Salvador. He added to the light-hearted parts of the film and even added some comedy too. The score from Alberto Iglesias helps dd to the feel to the film. Iglesias has contributed to the scores of many of Almodovar’s films and he does a great job of it again here.
The film could do well at this year’s Oscars. For the Cannes Film Festival, it was nominated for the Palme d’Or and won Best Actor for Banderas and Best Soundtrack for Iglesias. The International Cinephile Society gave the Prix Du Jury award to Almodovar and the Best Actor award to Banderas, and Banderas also won Best Actor at this year’s Hollywood Film Awards. This film is also Spain’s official submission to the Oscar category of Best International Feature Film; the seventh Almodovar film to be Spain’s official entry in this category.
I wouldn’t say Pain And Glory is worth the hype, but it is a very unique story. It almost autobiographical in some ways. Even if it’s not completely autobiographical, it makes a good story all its own.
For the record, no foreign-language film has ever won the Oscar for Best Picture. They’ve been nominated before but never won. Roma could just be the first. It has the story and all the other ingredients to do it.
The story begins in late 1970 as the maid Cleo is cleaning the driveway to the garage of the house she tends to. The house she tends to belongs to a couple, Sofia and Antonio, the grandmother, and their four children in the affluent Colonia Roma district of Mexico City. Cleo and Adela, both indigenous, are the two live-in maids. The parents see Cleo as their maid while the children look up to her and talk to her often. The driveway and garage is the place where the dog is left to stay while the family is gone during the day.
The driveway and garage is too small for the big car Antonio drives, frequently bumping into the sides and driving over the dog droppings. That even comes in private conversation as Antonio angrily tells Sofia about all the dog droppings on the driveway. Cleo notices that, as normally Antonio is not that angry. Antonio, a doctor, mentions to all he’s going off to a brief trip to Quebec for a conference. He returns days later, but says he will be going to Quebec for a few weeks. The children believe it, but Cleo and Sofia sense something is wrong. Cleo knows it because she saw his wedding ring in the drawer.
Life for Cleo and Adela does not always revolve around the household. Both have boyfriends: Adela has Ramon and Cleo has Fermin. One night they all decide to go to the movies together, but Cleo and Fermin sneak away to rent a room. Before they make love in the bedroom, Fermin shows Cleo the martial arts skills he learned with a shower pole. Fermin tells Cleo that this is what gave him, an orphaned boy, his will to live.
Some time later, when Cleo and Fermin are watching a movie, Cleo tells Fermin she’s pregnant. Fermin says he has to be gone for a bit, but doesn’t return. Cleo tells Sofia that she thinks she’s pregnant. Sofia takes her to the hospital Antonio works at. While waiting in the maternity ward, an earthquake happens. Cleo learns from the doctor she is pregnant.
Cleo and Sofia try to carry on with their lives despite their difficulties. Sofia takes her children, Cleo and Adela on a New Year’s trip to a hacienda owned by her Norwegian-Mexican friends. Before the party, we hear a conversation about recent tensions over the land. The celebrations begin with festivities and fun for the children. However just before midnight, a fire erupts in the forest. As everyone is trying to put the fire out, a man counts down the seconds to New Years Day 1971 and sings a Norwegian lullaby.
Back in the city, Sofia organizes a movie night with the grandmother, the four children, Cleo and Adela. As they wait in line, Cleo notices Antonio. He hasn’t left for Quebec at all. In fact he’s holding the hand of another woman. Sofia has known this all along, but she wants to conceal it from the children until the time is right. Though one son, Paco, does notice it. Sometime later, Adela tells Cleo Ramon has been able to locate Fermin attending outdoor martial arts classes. Cleo watches the class, and is even willing to participate (and does the blind-balanced exercise better than the male students). As the class ends, she confronts Fermin, but Fermin refuses to acknowledge the baby. She tells her to leave or he’ll beat her and the unborn baby.
Time passes and the baby is almost due. The grandmother takes Cleo crib shopping one day. However a student protest takes place. The protests turn brutal as police respond with clubbings. Then violence erupts as a group of youth — strongly believed to be the paramilitary group The Hawks — start shooting the protesters. The grandmother and Cleo seek refuge in a department store, but the Hawks enter and shoot a protester dead. One of the gunmen aims the gun at Cleo, but when it turns out it’s Fermin, he drops his gun and runs off.
The incident gives Cleo so much stress, she has to go into labor. Teresa rushes Cleo to the hospital in a taxicab, but the chaos of the massacre makes it next-to-impossible to get there. Once there, Antonio reassures Cleo in the delivery room to stay calm but leaves her with Teresa and other doctors. The doctors hear no heartbeat in Cleo’s womb and decide to operate. The baby is born a stillborn girl. None of the attempts to resuscitate the baby succeed.
Cleo tries to carry on her usual work and tries to live life again. One day, Sofia drives a smaller car into the garage, and with ease this time. She says she found a job of her own and she’s able to tend to the children herself. She tells the children that they are going on a brief family vacation to the beaches of Tuxpan as one last trip with the old car. Sofia invites Cleo to come along to help her cope with the loss. As they arrive, the mother tells the truth to her children. Sofia and Antonio are getting a divorce and the purpose of the trip is so Antonio can collect his belongings from the home. Before the trip ends, Cleo looks after the children as they are swimming in the ocean. However Cleo notices the waves are getting dangerously bigger. Cleo, forgetting that she can’t swim, swims out to try to save them. She succeeds in saving them and Sofia and the children are thankful for her selfless act. However Cleo confesses right there that she did not want her child to be born. The mother, the children and Cleo return to the house with less furniture than before but with a new sense of unity between Sofia and Cleo. The film ends as a conversation between Cleo and Adela begins.
The film is unique because it is semi-autobiographical of Alfonso Cuaron’s childhood. This film happens from 1970 to 1971: a time when Alfonso was nine to ten. The film Marooned, which was the film in the family movie night scene, was a film Alfonso saw as a child and may have inspired him to become a film maker. The film does give a lot of reminders of what it was like to be a child in a middle-class family in Mexico City. There are posters of Mexico 70, the World Cup Mexico had just hosted, on the walls. There’s the brother making fantasy (American) football saves, which was a time Mexico was just discovering American football.
However Alfonso’s childhood isn’t the central story behind Roma. The story is about two women and their lives around a pivotal turning point in Mexico’s history. Mexico experienced a lot of changes for the better and for the worse during that period of time, but it’s the changes within the women that were noticed most in the film. We have Cleo, an Indigenous woman who is one of the two maids, who is the main protagonist. We also have Sofia, the matriarch of the family, as the secondary protagonist. Both have their common female roles at the beginning: Cleo as the maid; Sofia as the housewife. However things change as it becomes obvious the men in their lives are doing them wrong. Antonio leaves Sofia for another woman, and Fermin abandons Cleo upon her pregnancy. The cowardliness of both men are shown in later scene as Fermin is part of the rebel group shooting protesting students and Antonio just simply puts Cleo in the hands of doctors as he leaves her behind. However both women find their strength inside as Sofia learns she can manage things, even motherhood, on her own and Cleo is able to save Sofia’s children in a situation when she thought she couldn’t.
The film is not just about the unity of two women but of unity of two women from different classes. We have Cleo, an Indigenous woman possibly from an impoverished background, who is impregnated by her boyfriend and then leaves her. We have Sofia, a Caucasian woman from a more well-to-do background, who is losing her husband slowly but surely. Both appear lost, but they later find an inner strength they never knew they had. It happens as Sofia is able to get a job and own her own car. It happens with Cleo as she saves Sofia’s children and admits her feeling toward her stillborn baby. It’s at the end where Sofia tells Cleo how she will always consider her part of her family that we see the bond of two women coming together. United in their struggles despite their class.
One unique aspect of Roma is its use of metaphors. One is the use of airplanes in the imagery and in the various poignant scenes. Another is the use of the marching band in a couple of key scenes, including the end. Another is how it was right after Cleo saves the children from giant waves that she confesses. Another is how the size of the cars in the garage are symbolic of the marriage and divorce. Another is of various scenes involving movies that tell a lot about relationships. Even the time in which it’s set, from 1970 to 1971, is considered a turning point in Mexico’s history. The marginalized were going either get nastier or protest democratically. The government and their crackdowns would only expose the police or whoever else attacked as cowards. The rich would no longer have their peace and order as the poor would seek to destroy or steal for their own gain. On top of that, women would gain more, They would achieve more freedoms over time and a sense of independence. Mexico would not be the same.
This masterpiece belongs to Alfonso Cuaron. He is the writer, director, cinematographer and co-editor with Adam Gough of this film. The film is a lot like his childhood, as he said it would be, but it’s more. It’s about the two women who find a new sense of freedom in a Mexico that was changing. He creates a masterpiece that’s as telling as Mexico and himself as it is of the characters. The lead acting went to newcomer Yalitza Aparicio and she shines. This may be her first film role ever, but she does an excellent job with her role. Interesting to know in the scene where she swims out to rescue Sofia’s children, she couldn’t swim, just like her character! Also excellent is Marina de Tavira as Sofia. A veteran actress in Mexico, she did an excellent job playing a woman in a troubled marriage who comes out stronger. The child actors who played the chilren were also excellent. I think it was Carlos Peralta as Paco who was intended to be the representation of Cuaron.
The unique thing about Roma is that this is a film most shown on NetFlix. It was screen in theatres beforehand so it does qualify for Oscar eligibility. However with it being on NetFlix, very few theatres have shown it on the big screen and there are no official box office statistics as of yet. The VanCity theatre in Vancouver was the only theatre in Greater Vancouver that screened Roma on the big screen. I had the luxury of seeing it on the big screen just days after Christmas. Those who just see it on NetFlix are missing out on an amazing experience. It is 100 times better seeing it in a movie theatre. However the NetFlix factor is very unique for a film with this many Oscar nominations and a huge chance of winning Best Picture. That NetFlix factor could rewrite the game on how films, especially independent films, are shown.
Roma is nothing short of a masterpiece. It’s also a film with a poignant social message as well. However it’s very picturesque to watch and an excellent experience for those lucky to see it on the big screen.