PARALLEL MOTHERS (2022)

January 13, 2022

Greetings again from the darkness. As a devoted follower of films by Almodovar for more than 35 years, I still find myself enchanted by his stories, his visuals, his characters, and his consistency in writing complex and engaging parts for women. Oscar winning writer-director Pedro Almodovar’s last film, PAIN AND GLORY (2019) may be considered his semi-autobiographical masterpiece, but this latest proves he still has much to say, and will do so with his customary flair.

I often write about a filmmaker ‘delivering’ a film, and in this case, Almodovar literally serves up dueling deliveries in the maternity ward. The births are edited for a bit of comedic relief, but the sequence also makes the all-important point about the connection between the two mothers. Oscar winner Penelope Cruz stars as Janis, a woman pushing 40 who has a fling with married Arturo (Israel Elejalde). He’s the forensic archeologist working on the project to excavate a mass grave from the Spanish Civil War rumored to hold the remains of relatives of Janis, as well as others from the community.

While awaiting the birth of her child, Janis meets her roommate Ana (a terrific Milena Smit), a 17-year-old who is much less thrilled than Janis at the thought of becoming a mother. The two women of different ages, different attitudes, and different, yet similar, situations give birth on the same day at the same time – each becoming a single mother. The exhausted women have no clue of what is to cause their lives to become intertwined and push the story forward. While in recovery, we are introduced to each women’s support. Janis’ lifelong friend Elena (played by Almodovar favorite Rossy de Palma) bursts into the room (and onto the screen) in a flash of color and smile. On the other side, Ana’s narcissist mother Teresa (Aitana Sanchez-Gijon) immediately begins recounting her latest audition, which could lead to the big break in her acting career. As an afterthought, she then asks about the babies. We learn so much in these few minutes.

This becomes the story of the two women and their babies, yet always hovering is a story about the history of the country, and the families affected by the Spanish Civil War atrocities. The story structure isn’t seamless, but then neither is life … especially of those impacted. Past and present have unbreakable links, as do the generations of strong females who carried on. As Janis pursues the archaeological dig, we contrast that with the self-centered Teresa who states, “I’m apolitical. My job is to please everyone.” Of course, by the end, Janis, Ana, and Teresa have all grown as people after facing morally challenging dilemmas.

This is Penelope Cruz’s 8th Almodovar film, and, to no one’s surprise, she excels in the role of Janis. It’s unfortunate that very few actors receive Oscar recognition for Foreign Language films because her work stands with that of any actor this year. Almodovar is a master, and proves time and again that melodrama is not a taboo approach to storytelling when handled properly. On display throughout is his trademark use of color – in clothes, cars, art, and yes, the hospital room. Even his closing credits are stylish. Frequent Almodovar collaborators include Production designer Antxon Gomez, composer Alberto Iglesias (heavy on the strings), and cinematographer Jose Luis Alcaine … and what a team they make. The film can be viewed as a tribute to (and reminder of) the history of Almodovar’s beloved Spain. He even includes a fitting quote, “History refuses to shut its mouth”, something he works to ensure.

Opens in select theaters on January 14, 2022

WATCH THE TRAILER


PAIN & GLORY (2019)

October 17, 2019

 Greetings again from the darkness. This marks the 13th Pedro Almodovar movie I’ve seen over the last 33 years. There is no logical explanation for why I feel connected to his movies. It seems obvious I have very little in common with the provocative filmmaker from Spain who won an Oscar for his extraordinary 2002 film HABLA CON ELLA (TALK TO HER). Yet, his movies invariably strike an emotional chord with me – and none more so than his latest.

As with many of his previous films (and more than most), this one has a strong semi-autobiographical feel to it. Antonio Banderas stars as aging filmmaker Salvador Mallo. No other actor could have been cast in the role. This is, by my count, the eighth collaboration between actor and director … no actor has a better feel for Almodovar over the past three decades. It must be noted that Banderas does not stoop to impersonation or mimicry. OK, he has similar spiked hair, beard, fancy clothes and a museum-quality house … but the performance is all Banderas, and it’s a thing of beauty. Salvador is an aged man who looks defeated despite numerous career achievements. His physical pains are many – chronic back pain, migraines, sporadic choking – but it’s his emotional isolation and solitude that stands out. Salvador is a lonely man with signs of depression.

The film bounces between two time periods: Salvador as an older man with the above listed struggles, and young Salvador (Asier Flores) growing up in poverty with his mother Jacinta (Penelope Cruz) and dreaming of a better life. The elder Salvador is reflecting on the life journey that brought him to this point, while the younger Salvador is filled with youthful hope for the future, even as his core being is taking shape.

Cinemateque has remastered Salvador’s first big movie “Sabor” and have invited him to attend the screening and participate in the Q&A. He sees this as a chance to re-connect with the film’s star (and his long ago friend) Alberto Crespo (played by Asier Etxeandia). The two haven’t spoken in over 30 years due to bad blood and artistic differences during the filming of “Sabor”. Now understanding Alberto’s approach to the role, Salvador is told by an actress that ‘the movie hasn’t changed, but the eyes you see it through have’. Salvador visits Alberto and soon the actor is sharing his heroin stash with his director. Salvador continues “chasing the dragon” as a form of relief from his physical pain, and as an escape from his solitude. It seems to work much better than his cocktail of prescription drugs.

Rather than a film of drug addiction, this is a film of reflection. Fellini’s 81/2 (1963) is surely the most famous and iconic of the autobiographical films by a director, and though Fellini may have the advantage of esoteric artistry, Almodovar’s signature style is ever-present through primary colors (especially red) and memorable sets. Deserving of special mention are frequent Almodovar collaborators Antxion Gomez (Production Design), Maria Clara Notari (Art Direction), Paola Torres (Costume Design), and cinematographer Jose Luis Alcaine. The music is provided by 3-time Oscar nominee Alberto Iglesias.

There are some intimate and touching scenes in the film, as well as a couple of lines of dialogue that hit pretty hard. Circumstances are such that Salvador reunites with Federico (Leonardo Sbaraglia), the love of his life. It’s a tender reunion that lasts only a short time, but allows for needed closure for both men. There is also a sequence where Salvador is having a heartfelt and intimate conversation with his elderly mother (Julieta Serrano). She tells him he was not a good son. This conversation between adult son and mother is an example of things that should be said, but rarely are. Ms. Serrano previously played Mr. Banderas’ mother in WOMEN ON THE VERGE OF A NERVOUS BREAKDOWN and MATADOR.

Almodovar’s movie premiered at Cannes, and it examines our expectations for life and how they contrast to our later recollections. The two timelines show one looking forward as the stage is set, and the other looking back at both the good times and bad. For an artist, it’s the life that molds their influences for their art/craft. Salvador’s memories even play like short movies. There may be no real plot to the film, and instead it focuses on reflection, introspection and perspective. “Love can’t cure the ones we love” is a gut-punch of a line, and one that can’t be comprehended until late in life. For an Almodovar film, this one is restrained and tempered – even tender at times. And yet despite this, it will stick with me for awhile.

watch the trailer:

 


EVERYBODY KNOWS (2019, Todos lo saben)

February 21, 2019

 Greetings again from the darkness. Sometimes we just click with the work of a particular filmmaker, and such is the case with Iranian-born Asghar Farhadi. From ABOUT ELLY (2009) to his two Oscar wins for Foreign Language films, the instant classic A SEPARATION (2011) and THE SALESMAN (2016), Mr. Farhadi has proven himself to be a terrific and distinct story teller. As an added bonus in this latest film, he works with cinematographer (and frequent Pedro Almodovar collaborator) Jose Luis Alcaine to take his visuals to a new level.

There is a playful and warm and familiar set-up before the switch is flipped. Laura (Penelope Cruz) has been living in Argentina with her husband Alejandro, teenage daughter Irene (Carla Campra) and young son Diego (Ivan Chavero), and has returned to her hometown outside of Madrid for her younger sister Ana’s (Inma Cuesta, THE BRIDE) wedding. Laura’s husband Alejandro did not make the trip, and that plays a role deeper in the story. Hugs and kisses are exchanged amongst some of the most attractive people you’ll see on screen as family and friends are reunited … including Laura and local vineyard owner Paco (Javier Bardem), who share a romantic history from years ago. We quickly learn that Laura’s daughter Irene is a bit rebellious and free-spirited as she re-establishes her connection with Paco’s lovestruck nephew.

Slowly, we are introduced to other friends and family members, including Paco’s wife Bea (Barbara Lennie). These introductions are vital, not for the raucous and music filled wedding reception, but for what happens after. Having put her to bed earlier, Laura comes back to find daughter Irene missing and the only clues are newspaper clippings from a local child kidnapping years past. A most festive evening has been jolted into panic and dread. Soon Laura receives an untraceable text (I guess that’s how it’s done these days) asking for a huge ransom. It’s at this point, where secrets previously kept begin to surface.

The Farhadi trademark kicks in about this time. Although Laura is understandably distraught and disoriented, it’s clear the story is less about the crime and more about the interactions of the characters – resentments, the weight of long held grudges, and more of those dark secrets that begin to find the light. Everyone is a suspect, including Laura’s husband Alejandro (Ricardo Darin, THE SECRET IN THEIR EYES) who shows up convinced God will protect his daughter. The worst traits of human nature are on full display as quick assumptions are drawn. There are lots of pieces to this puzzle and it’s dizzying fun keeping track.

Trust within the family and amongst friends is at the core of the story, and Mr. Farhadi makes solving the crime secondary to the actions and reactions of these folks who have known each other for so long. Melodrama abounds (in a good way) and there are some wonderful visuals, including drone photography from the wedding reception, and an opening sequence featuring the church bell tower and clock. This is the 5th film collaboration between real life couple Cruz and Bardem (the most recent being the disappointing LOVING PABLO), and both are exceptional here. Ms. Cruz offers up a gut-wrenching performance and Mr. Bardem is a joy to watch as he struggles with emotions too complex to verbalize. This is Mr. Farhardi’s first Spanish language film, but it’s clear his subject matter and characters are universally recognized.

watch the trailer: