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.
The French/Arabic-language film Of Gods And Men doesn’t have the type of subject matter that would normally bring in a large crowd. The film is about Cicstercian Monks living in a small village in Algeria facing threats from fundamentalist terrorist groups. Nevertheless those lucky enough to see it will love it for what it is.
This film is based on an incident that happened in 1996. Seven French monks from the Algerian village of Tibhirine were found decapitated. The film focuses on the days just before they were killed. They were a group of eight monks who lived in a monastery in Tibhirine. They devoted their lives to monk rituals of gardening, distributing medical help to locals and religious devotions. They were present at the village during times of celebration and they conversed with the villagers regularly. They all did this during a time of the Algerian Civil War. Religious extremists were committing acts of brutality amongst foreigners and their own people. The pressure was felt by the monks. Christian, the leader and resident religious scholar, tells authorities they will not go. However this is hotly debated with the other monks as some fear for their own safety. Christian then gives the men time to decide whether to leave or not. News gets grimmer by the moment. They even face potential threats of their own. Authorities of the Algerian government request they leave for their lives. The villagers however convince them of how vital they are to the community. In the end, as one brother pays a visit to the monastery, they all vote to stay. Late in the night, seven of the nine are found, captured and taken away. Those would be their last minutes known to be alive.
The film has many great qualities. Its best technical quality was the cinematography as it added to the film in showcasing the landscape in its best splendor. The film was well-directed and well-written by French director Xavier Beauvois. The script he co-wrote with Etienne Comar was excellent and very no-nonsense as it cut at the heart of the monks and the village they served. As important as it was to show the events that happened leading up to the times, the script’s biggest focus was on the monks and their lives. It was more about people than events. Even the scene of the last dinner with the music of Swan Lake in the background was done with the focus on the men.
The biggest strength of the movie is definitely the acting. Of all performances, the two that stood out were that of Christian the leader and Luc the doctor. Lambert Wilson’s performance of Christian was excellent and the most intense. Often he said more in his scenes of silence than he did with his spoken parts. Michael Lonsdale’s performance of Luc the Doctor was the best supporting performance. There wasn’t a hint of phoniness in it.
As for the monks as a whole, the most remarkable thing about the film is its ability to give three-dimensional portrayal of monk characters. The film not only showed them in their prayer life but also showed the devotion during their prayers. The film showed them in their occupations and how important they were to the village. The film showed their convictions and their beliefs. The film showed the bond between the men. Above all, it was alll done in a three-dimensional manner. This is very rare for a film to accomplish that feat. Even back during the days of the Hays Code–where one of the rules was that religious figures were to be depicted in a positive manner–religious figures were still two-dimensional at the most. Even the negative depictions of religious figures that came once the Hays Code was dropped in the 60’s as ‘censorship’ or ‘restrictive of creativity’–were also two dimensional and often too stockish. This film has to be the most realistic and inside-out portrayal of religious characters, in both character and their vocation, that I’ve ever seen on the big screen. Even 1997’s The Apostle doesn’t compare as Robert Duvall’s portrayal of a minister had more focus on his passion and personal demons than on his vocation.
Also vital is the ending of the film. It is not known who exactly killed the monks. An Islamic extremist group has claimed responsibility but recent documents from the French secret service claim that the Algerian army carried it out as a mistake during the rescue attempt. The film doesn’t pick one group at fault as the monks are captured in the dead of night with the darkness hiding their identity.
There may be some nervous in seeing this film, feeling it might try to ‘convert’ them to Catholicism. For the record, director Xavier Beauvois has not directed a religious film in the past. One thing we should note is that while the monks lived at the monastery, there’s no scene of them trying to convert any of the villagers from Islam. In fact Brother Christian was as knowledgeable about the Koran as he was about the Bible. When religion extremists threatened to shoot the brothers in one instance, Brother Christian quoted a passage from the Koran which caused the leader to drop his gun and order his followers to leave. I believe Beauvois wanted to show that for the monks, the faith was mightier than the sword. Also in the script was a scene where the monks talk about the difference between the Islamics and ‘Islamists’. This is good for a time when religion faces a lot of flack from religious dissenters. I believe that may have been another point from Beauvois that it’s important for one to recognize the believers from the ‘beliefists’.
This film has won a lot of accolades. It won the Grand Prix and the Prize of the Ecumenical Jury at the 2010 Cannes Film Festival. The Grand Prix is second to the Palme d’Or as the most prestigious award at the Festival. Other nominations and awards have followed such as wins at France’s Cesar Awards, nominations at the European Film Awards, nominated for Best Film Not In The English Language at Britain’s BAFTA awards and was France’s official entry for the 2010 Academy Award for the Best Foreign Language Film category. The film was well received by critics here in North America and has a 91% approval rating at Rotten Tomatoes.
Although this is a movie that makes for excellent viewing for Catholic communities, it’s not completely 100% ‘safe’ for everyone. There is a few profanities utters, including one by a monk. There are also some scenes of violence. The most violence is the scene of soldiers being cut at the throat by the extremists. Most of the violence is only seen through news footage.
For writers and directors with religious values, this film offers a ray of hope for those who want to break into film making. It shows that a film showcasing religious values can not only be shown on the big screen but also be written and produced well. That has long been the dilemma ever since the Hays Code has been lifted. This was best summed up in a quote by Catholic scriptwriter/acting school director Barbara Nicolosi-Harrington:
I realized coming (to Hollywood) that it’s not so much Hollywood is persecuting the Church as much as it was the Church was committing suicide in Hollywood. Big difference. So I basically wrote an article about it saying that Hollywood isn’t anti-Christian as so much as it’s anti-bad art, and we’re just giving it schlock.
She states a major hurdle here as all too often a lot of Christian writers have written a lot of scrpits viewed by Hollywood as sub-standard in skill while the more liberal writers seem to know how to write for the screen. It’s a hugely difficult task to write a film of positive values or strong faith for the general audience without crossing the line of being schmaltzy or manipulative. Of Gods And Men shows that it can be done and it’s just a matter of learning how to do things right.
If you’re fortunate enough to have it come to your city, I highly recommend you see Of Gods And Men. Even if you don’t buy the Catholic faith or want a movie with preachy religious themes, it’s a film worth watching. It’s as much about people and their devotion to their beliefs as it is about an incident that happened. Even with the tragic ending, it tells a lot about the human spirit that will stay with the viewer once they leave the theatre.