Pedro Almodóvar’s Oscar-nominated Pain and Glory looks a lot like autobiography, but then, so does Bad Education
Pedro Almodovar denies Pain and Glory is an accurate account of his life. If not a personal autobiography, it is perhaps a professional kind.
In the face of the Parasite juggernaut, no one, realistically, gives Pedro Almodóvar’s Pain and Glory a chance at winning the Best International Film Academy Award. But I’m glad it’s up there in the list, and I’m glad Antonio Banderas has also been nominated for his exquisite performance as… Pedro Almodóvar.
The character, a gay filmmaker named Salvador Mallo, looks like Almodóvar, with those clothes and those distinctive spikes of hair. Architectural Digest reported that Salvador’s apartment was modelled after Almodóvar’s own, “including details such as how light enters during particular moments in the day.” Almodóvar donated his own art and furniture to make this set, and also lent his shoes and clothes for Banderas to wear.
Autobiography, right? Almodóvar said… not exactly. He calls the film a work of fiction, and yet, he confessed in The Guardian: “I’m trying to convince myself I’m talking about a character. But deep down I know I’m talking about myself.” But it doesn’t matter. One doesn’t need these anecdotal details to make the case that Pain and Glory is a deeply personal work. In its flashbacks to early awakenings of sexuality, in its confessional story within a story, and in its “one that got away” friendship, it harks back to Law of Desire (1987) and Bad Education (2004) – and isn’t revisiting themes and images also a form of autobiography? If not personal autobiography, it’s perhaps a professional kind.
Bad Education came out when Almodóvar, apparently, could make nothing but masterpieces – it was preceded by All About My Mother and Talk to Her, and succeeded by Volver. It’s a very special film – also, very unique in its tricky “meta” structure that combines a real story (that echoes the thread from Law of Desire, where a trans-woman accosts her abuser-priest) with an actual production of that story (which is now being made into a movie). As seasoning, we get stabs at noir-style rug-pulling about blackmail and assumed identities.
The “real” story opens as Ignacio, an actor, walks into the office of a filmmaker named Enrique. The twist – the first among many – is that Ignacio was Enrique’s friend in a Catholic-run boarding school. Plus, Ignacio was Enrique’s first love. The narrative then loops around a drag queen named Zahara, a priest (Father Manolo) who abused Ignacio, and many others who appear as their real and fictional versions. In terms of pure form, therefore, Bad Education is a dazzling film that cuts across not just time periods but also the divide between what’s real and what’s been imagined and what’s being recreated on the movie set within this movie.
And today, after Pain and Glory, the film assumes even more kaleidoscopic shapes and shades. An early scene in Pain and Glory shows Salvador’s mother and her friends doing a load of washing by a river. One of them wishes that a naked man would swim by. The women laugh. Another one cracks a lewd joke. And then, beside the clothesline, they begin to sing. Beautifully. The earthy humour from earlier gives way to sounds from the heavens. This scene is almost exactly like the one in Bad Education where earthiness (the rape of a young boy) was contrasted with ethereal music (Henry Mancini’s wistful classic, 'Moon River,' best known as the song Audrey Hepburn sings in Breakfast at Tiffany’s).
Like Salvador from Pain and Glory, Enrique is having a bit of a creative block. He’s scanning the tabloids for inspiration and finds this beauty of a story. A motorcyclist froze to death on a highway, during a spell of icy weather, and drove for a further 90 km – after he was dead. Two patrolmen flagged him down. The motorcyclist, naturally, did not react. So they pursued him. They drove alongside and rebuked him, and only when they saw how immobile he was did they realise something was wrong. “It’s a wonderful image,” Enrique tells his assistant. “A dead young man drives his motorcycle across the icy plain, escorted by two patrolmen.” The assistant, a more realistic man, asks, “Where was he going in that icy dawn?”
Enrique mulls over this very briefly and replies, “To see someone who couldn’t wait until the morning. There’s a story here!” Like Salvador, Enrique is an Almodóvar stand-in, too. A realist, like that assistant, would balk at the outrageousness of this tabloid story. Enrique only sees the romance in it. Enrique’s assistant would probably balk at the story of a male nurse who fell for a dancer, stalked her, and then, took care of her and “lived with her” when she fell into a coma. Enrique would probably fashion a film titled Talk to Her.
Like he did during the interviews for Pain and Glory, Almodóvar stressed that Bad Education was not autobiography – at least, not personal autobiography. He said it was inspired by two priests from his Catholic-run boarding school who molested other boys, but he was not one of the victims. He said he was more interested in the priest, at once a villain and a victim of his own desires. In Almodóvar’s world, no one is really evil.
He told the New York Times Magazine, “My goal as a writer is to have empathy for all characters. In all my films, I have a tendency to redeem my characters. It is very Catholic – redemption is one of the most appealing parts of the religion. Sadly, I am not a believer in Catholicism, but the priest is probably my favorite character in Bad Education. I love characters who are crazy in love and will give their life to passion, even if they burn in hell.”
With this in mind, let’s return to another tabloidy story in Bad Education. This time, it’s about a woman who threw herself into a pool of hungry crocodiles in a crowded zoo. When the first crocodile attacked, the woman hugged it. In a few minutes, the crocodiles devoured the woman, who never complained. “She didn’t even open her mouth,” Enrique concludes, as his assistant listens. By this time, Enrique knows Ignacio isn’t who he claims to be. He’s actually a... hungry crocodile. But like the woman, Enrique isn’t complaining. You could say that Almodóvar, too, likes to jump into crocodile-infested pools – in his films – and embrace the dangers that come along.
Hence this interview to Latino Weekly Review, where the filmmaker said: “Bad Education is the opposite of a film with good guys and villains. In any case, I never judge characters, whatever they do. My job is to ‘represent them,’ explain them in all their complexity, and come up with an entertaining spectacle with all that. It isn’t good for a film when the director judges his or her characters, even if they do atrocious things.”
Baradwaj Rangan is editor, Film Companion (South).
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