Spanish director Pedro Almodóvar shines again with his 23rd feature Pain and Glory (original title: Dolor y gloria), screening in El Gouna’s Out of Competition selection. It is a moving 113 minute drama about ageing filmmaker Salvador Mallo, who though celebrated hasn’t been working all that much, played by the brilliant Antonio Banderas (a performance for which he received the Best Actor Award at Cannes Film Festival), who starred in Almodóvar’s The Skin I Live In (2011) and Matador (1986).
With the progress of the drama the viewer’s impression that this is a cinematic self portrait rather than anything else is confirmed, and it’s a beautiful account of how an old man deals with his present and his past, how he manages his relationships with the people he loves and how he deals with his health condition, his depression and the idea of death.
The film opens with Salvador Mallo motionless underwater in a swimming pool, focusing on his aged face and the signs of a surgery all through his chest and stomach. Immediately afterwards this metaphoric death is contrasted with a group of women sining while washing clothes in a river – a bright and lively scene. Among them, Jacinta (Penélope Cruz) is the only woman who is accompanied by her son: Salvador. The film weaves some background about Salvador’s childhood into the drama, producing two storylines of the present and past.
Salvador Mallo was once the filmmaker of his generation, but for a long time he has not been working and, looking at his past glory, he has entered a vicious circle of depression and creative block. Though his work through the years has provided him with some savings and a comfortable home so full of unique art works it looks like a museum, he is suffering from backaches and headaches as well as insomnia and the inability to eat solid food; even his medication has be ground before he ingests it.
Salvador meets with an old friend, Zulema, who advises him to contact his former collaborator the film actor Alberto (Asier Etxeandia) with whom he fell out after a huge fight after a masterpiece he felt Alberto had ruined, a very long time ago. They talk and end up spending some time together, and Alberto convinces Salvador to try heroin the Chinese way – on a tin foil – the effect of which is that he retreats into sombre childhood memories: growing up with his mother in a humble house in the more or less complete absence of a father figure.
But the film has its funny moments: Alberto and Salvador promise to attend the screening of their controversial film, to be followed by a Q & A session, together, only to end up at home sniffing heroin and fighting while the organiser has put them on speaker phone so they can apologise to the audience for not being there.
Salvador is asleep when Alberto gives himself permission to read his autobiography, Addiction, about a love affair that ended with his partner becoming a heroin addict. Alberto is excited to stage this story as a play and eventually he convinces Salvador, and while it is being performed there is an audience member who is crying in the front line – Federico (Leonardo Sbaraglia), the former lover on a brief visit to Madrid, whom Salvador is reluctant to meet with until he invites him to his home and gradually, expertly, the riddle is unravelled. As a young man, Federico had fixed kitchen tiles at Salvador’s home in return for Salvador teaching him.
It is their reunion that prompts Salvador to visit his doctor, stop using heroin and take care of his health.
Banderas gives an astounding performance throughout, managing to maintain an almost impossible tension in such scenes as his encounter with his dying mother (in old age she is played by Julieta Serrano). He is complemented by the subtle brilliance of cinematographer José Luis Alcane and the vibrant music of Alberto Iglesias (which won the Cannes Soundtrack Award). Almodóvar’s expert juggling of past and present, laughter and tears, on the other hand, is simply luminous.
The 91-minute Bulgarian film The Father (original title Bashtata) is the third film by co-directors Kristina Grozeva and Petar Valchanov, who previously made The Lesson (2014) and Glory (2016). A black comedy about a father and son facing the death of the mother, it stars Ivan Barnev.
Born in in 1973, Barnev is a graduate of the National Academy for Theatre, and he does more theatre than film, he says, “because in Bulgaria we generally don’t produce a huge number of films per year, but I believe I was lucky to play roles in various films and even outside Bulgaria, playing the protagonist in Jirí Menzel’s film I Served the King of England (2006), which participated in the Berlinale at the time and that was a transition point for me in Bulgaria as I was offered more significant roles. On the other hand maybe I wasn’t so lucky as I started my acting career in the post-communist period. Under that regime we were producing more than 20 films per year, now it’s two or three at most”.
Regarding the production dilemma in Bulgaria, he says, “I’ll tell you how the duo filmmaker Kristina Grozeva and Petar Valchanov produced their debut film, The Lesson. It was about a teacher who robbed a bank, they applied for government funding and it was refused, but they believed in their project, so accordingly they reached out to friends, gathered awards and small funds from a lot of sources to make their film. Amazingly, this film collected some 40 awards and it was made with a budget of 13 thousand Euros.
“I believe The Father is part of this low-budget funding experience. It’s not the first time I’ve worked with Grozeva and Valchanov, I worked with them in The Lesson and prior to that I worked in a short film with Grozeva alone. As for this film, The Father, Ivan Savov,” who plays the father, “and me – and let me say Ivan Savov is a very talented actor – we were chosen without an audition because we already know and worked with these two filmmakers before and we’re also close friends and I think that helped to create more understanding especially on such a sensitive film that really needs the crew to have some sort of connection and a clear vision for what they need to do.”
Set in a Bulgarian village, the film opens with a man approaching a funeral. Thus Pavel (Ivan Barnev), a man in his forties, arrives late to his mother Valentina’s funeral and stands next to his father, only to have his phone interrupt the proceedings with a frog croak ring tone. The father, Vassil (Ivan Savov) suddenly asks his son if he has his camera with him – Pavel is an advertising photographer - and when he says yes Vassil insists that he should photograph Valentina before she is buried.
With such craziness, it seems, Vassil deals with his grief. Vassil is a painter and during the dinner that follows the funeral he shows his guests a painting that represents Valentina, an actress, in an even crazier way. Back in Sofia, Pavel’s pregnant wife – whom we never see, and who appears to be unaware of Valentina’s death – keeps calling to ask for homemade quince jam from the village. But the madness, as it turns out, is only just beginning.
Vassil is convinced that Valentina is trying to contact him from other side and so he visits a person who supposedly connects the living with their dead relatives by making them sleep in the woods. Meanwhile a woman relative, having received calls from Valentina, was so scared she hid her phone and stopped using it. Pavel, on the other hand, is caught stealing quince jam made by the officer himself – from the police station. It all comes together when Pavel listens to a voicemail sent by Valentina to the woman in question telling her to contact Vassil (whose phone is out of reach) to tell him to start making the jam before the quince goes bad. The film ends with father and sun cutting up quince as per Valentina’s wishes.
“This project,” Barney says, “is not part of the trilogy that includes The Lesson, Glory and a final project to be named Triumph. The Father is just a personal story, an image, reflecting the vision of one of the directors, Valchanov, and based on a true story that happened to him. Maybe after two successful movies, they wanted to have a little break, because everybody is waiting for the third movie and they’re trying to do something more like the work of Georgiy Daneliya – they’re really great fans of Daneliya – which are brilliant with a lot of humour, so that’s why they decided to do this story, which is different from the very serious, very dramatic first two films. It’s a sad story but it’s how you present it.
“The characters in this films were of course written in the script but what made them flesh and blood is what happened as we developed them together many times, we used to improvise and think about the characters before we decided on the best way to show them, and some stories were made up on the set. I think the details make a difference because of the combination of intelligence and humour.
At the beginning when we started shooting, all the time I was telling myself, why are we doing this, but when Petar started suggesting these crazy things for the father to do, I realised that this was the way to do the story. Humour is one way of dealing with pain and suffering like Charlie Chaplin in most of his films but especially The Kid, you can laugh and it’s touching. The most difficult thing in that film was how to examine ourselves in these characters: their pace and their understanding, reliving their suffering, trauma, fear and how to manage their anger.”
The Father received the Crystal Globe Award for Best Film at the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival, as well as the Best Director Award and Audience Choice Grand Prix at Sakhalin International Film Festival. It is nominated for the Golden Star of El Gouna Film Festival.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 19 September, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.