Arts Festival

How to chase pretty dragons


PORTRAIT of a boy, reading. Asier Flores is the pre-teen Salvador Mallo. Photograph: Imdb.

SOMETIMES WHEN 110% of attention is focused on the beautification of every nuance offered in every film still, something very important gets lost. Pedro Almodóvar’s long awaited semi-autobiographical film Pain and Glory resonates, in some ways with the premises of Federico Fellini’s (1963) 8½, but with too much artifice and not enough magic. Wrapping important incidental stories into the heart of a grand narrative of a tired film director, Salvador Mallo (Antonio Banderas) and his close encounters with his past and even closer ones with heroin, the work, in Spanish with English sub-titles veers on the side of self-indulgent. It is easily one of the weaker works on this year’s European Film Festival.

The biggest problem with this film is its urge to be everything. Is it an out-of-the-frame glance at what it takes to make a film? Is it a self portrait of a man beyond his heyday obsessed with physical pain? Is it an essay on lust and its complicated roots? Perhaps it serves as a paean to love lost and the potency of coincidence? Either way, the proverbial water is very muddied, even in the face of some vignettes that are so beautiful, you will instinctively catch your breath and moan.

There is a magnificent moment where the young mother of the child Salvador (played by Penélope Cruz) is washing the family’s linen in the river. There is another where the child (Asier Flores) and his mum are waiting in the confines of a station. When the prepubescent Salvador encounters the young builder Eduardo (César Vicente) and a portrait as well as many other things ensue, the moment is electric with beauty. And as the young Salvador is auditioned for the school choir, you are sucked into the importance of the moment.

And then, there other moments: Julieta Serrano plays the director’s mother as an elderly woman, and the dignity and wit articulated in these flashbacks are completely magnificent. Serrano lends continuity to the role, developing the points raised by Cruz in interpreting a woman disappointed by her son in spite of his great artistic success.

But, contrary to how the trailer of the film is constructed, this work is not the sum of its vignettes and the grand narrative of the work takes it into directions that are predictable and damaged by too much physical perfection. When the adult Salvador meets his long lost lover Federico (Leonardo Sbaraglia), the resonance of two beautiful men embracing makes you feel like you’ve slipped over into a beautiful fashion shoot, and something of the depth of the story becomes a casualty.

If you’re a sworn Almodóvar fan, you may forgive the indulgences, the reaches into and out of the medium of film, and wish to hold the beauty tight in your mind’s proverbial hand. But if not, you may dismiss this film as an hour and a half of overkill.

  • Pain and Glory is directed by Pedro Almodóvar and features a cast headed by Agustin Almodóvar, Raúl Arévalo, Antonio Banderas, Luis Calero, Pedro Casablanc, Aline Casagrande, Constancia Céspedes, Penélope Cruz, Chimezie Eke, Asier Etxeandia, Asier Flores, Eneko Galende, Alba Gómez, Esperanza Guardado, Paqui Horcajo, Fernando Iglesias, Julián López, Eva Martín, Virgil-Henry Mathet, Marisol Muriel, Nora Navas, Miguel Rivera, Rosalía, Cecilia Roth, Xavi Sáez, Susi Sánchez, Leonardo Sbaraglia, Julieta Serrano, Sara Sierra and César Vicente. It is written by Pedro Almodóvar and, produced by Agustín Almodóvar, Ricardo Marco Budé and Ignacio Salazar-Simpson, it features creative input by Alberto Iglesias (music), José Luis Alcaine (cinematography), Teresa Font (editing), Eva Leira and Yolanda Serrano (casting), Antxón Gómez (production design) and Paola Torres (costumes). It is part of the European Film Festival, screening in Cape Town, Johannesburg and Pretoria from November 29, and opens on the general Cinema Nouveau circuit in South Africa on December 6.

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