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Almodóvar’s vision shines in ‘Dolor Y Gloria’

| Friday, September 6, 2019

Diane Park | The Observer

In the 30 plus years he’s been a fixture in cinemas around the globe, Spanish writer/director Pedro Almodóvar has gained a reputation as one of the few artists in any medium whose own name represents a genre unto itself. “Almodóvariano” has become shorthand for the themes and symbols running through the director’s oeuvre. Strong female characters, vibrant colors, camp (real camp, not the Met Gala version), Catholic guilt and the power of performance are just a few of the trademarks Almodóvar has collected for himself over his illustrious career. 

It is impossible to explain Almodóvar’s appeal to those who haven’t seen his movies. He mixes high and low culture as though he’s running our guilty pleasures and high school English curriculums through a Cuisinart. To Almodóvar, the only difference between soap operas and Tennessee Williams is a matter of staging.

Families — both blood and adopted — figure centrally into nearly all of his works, though his idea of a nuclear household might as well be radioactive. The ragtag group at the heart of 1999’s “Todo Sobre Mi Madre,” made up of a grieving mother, a transgender prostitute, a pregnant nun and two feuding actresses, suggests “The Brady Bunch” by way of Andy Warhol or John Waters. Almodóvar — for all of his professed influences and allusions — is still a highly original filmmaker, and his latest film — the semi-autobiographical “Dolor y Gloria,” stands at the peak of his achievements. 

“Dolor y Gloria” finds Almodóvar regular Antonio Banderas playing depressed film director Salvador Mallo in a register of self-pity and reticence that is leagues away from the suave roles that made him famous. Stranded in his spacious Madrid apartment, Salvador is unable to make any new films while contending with a litany of personal and physical pains, laid out for the audience in a first-act exposition blast cleverly disguised as a 3-D rendering of Salvador’s ailing body.

When a local film society decides to remaster one of his earlier classics, Salvador reaches out to his estranged star Alberto (Asier Etxeandia, perfectly cast as Guns N’ Roses-aping burnout) in order to reconnect and present the film. In return, Alberto offers to perform a one-man play his former director wrote — and, as though Salvador doesn’t have enough going on, Alberto also single-handedly inspires and furnishes the older man’s newfound heroin addiction. As Salvador gains confidence and returns to the world, he undergoes a chance encounter with a long-lost flame — in the film’s most breathtaking scene — and flashes back to his youth in parochial Spain with his mother Jacinta (Penelope Cruz in a far-too-small role). 

As always, Almodóvar and his usual crew of filmmaking associates — most notably cinematographer Jose Luis Alcaine and composer Alberto Iglesias — create cinematic gold. Only Almodóvar, a master of shot composition since the very beginning of his career, could make the keys on a piano burst with color. Graphic matches move the story between past and present. In a nifty feat of editing, the adult Salvador’s dive in a swanky pool switches seamlessly to a childhood memory of his mother washing clothes in a river.

Almodóvar’s interplay between Salvador’s youthful innocence and the pained reservations of his older age closely resembles Federico Fellini, his greatest antecedent in the pantheon of world cinema. Fellini’s classic “8 1/2,” also about a struggling film director, is an obvious influence on Almodóvar here — though the homespun feel of the growing-up scenes in “Dolor y Gloria” recall the Italian director’s under-seen 1973 film “Amarcord.” The true power of “Dolor y Gloria,” is not in its similarities to other great films, but how it cements Almodóvar in the highest echelon of the directors who make them.

Title: “Dolor y Gloria”

Starring: Antonio Banderas, Penelope Cruz, Asier Etxeandia

Director: Pedro Almodóvar

Genre: Drama

If You Like: “La Dolce Vita,” “Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown,” “The Artist”

Shamrocks: 4.5 out of 5


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