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Why Pedro Almodóvar and Antonio Banderas’ ‘Pain and Glory’ Is ‘a Kind of Miracle’

Outlandish coincidences abound in Pedro Almodóvar’s films, from unlikely chance encounters to mistaken identities. But in his latest picture, “Pain and Glory,” it’s surely no coincidence that a poster for Fellini’s “8½” graces the wall of somebody’s apartment, or that the central character, Salvador Mallo, is an aging gay Spanish director with spiky gray hair whose name contains all the letters in “Almodóvar.”

Those are just a few of the signs that this new movie from the maker of “All About My Mother” is, in many ways, all about himself. Mallo, played by frequent collaborator Antonio Banderas, is an alter ego for Almodóvar, 69, and an echo of Fellini’s Guido Anselmi: a director edging into the twilight of life, plagued by physical and psychological frailty, visited by childhood memories, haunted by loss. There’s sex. There’s love. And, this being an Almodóvar film, there’s Mom (played in her younger years by Penélope Cruz, another of the director’s longtime go-to actors).

“Pain and Glory” screens in competition at the Cannes Film Festival, which Almodóvar and Banderas will attend together for the first time since 2011’s “The Skin I Live In.” Both are familiar figures on the Croisette. Almodóvar chaired the jury in 2017, and caused a kerfuffle when he proclaimed his support for the festival’s decision to ban Netflix films from competing unless they’re destined for theatrical release, a position fellow juror Will Smith promptly scoffed at. In interviews with Variety in Madrid, Almodóvar and Banderas continue to back Cannes’ stance, though Banderas has wrapped shooting on “The Laundromat” for Netflix, and, surprisingly, Almodóvar says (take note, Ted Sarandos) that he’s open to the idea of working with the streaming giant.

“I don’t see myself making what I’d call a Netflix original solely and exclusively for Netflix, because I would miss the cinema as the venue for my film to be shown,” says the director, who goes to the movies once a week, even if no particular picture grabs his fancy. “But I could see myself in the future making a series — not a series that would be mono-thematic, but perhaps a series made up of different episodes of short stories, almost like short films. … It would be a way of getting out of that straitjacket of a film that has to be an hour and a half in length, or an episode that has to be a half-hour only.”

Flouting convention has been a hallmark of Almodóvar’s oeuvre of 21 movies, especially his willingness to put LGBT characters front and center, long before Ellen DeGeneres or Laverne Cox landed on the cover of Time. “It was part of my life. I was surrounded by it,” he says. “So it was something I definitely wanted to put in my films, to make it something natural.”

Despite its Roman Catholic roots, Spain has embraced marriage equality and more affirming policies toward trans people. Banderas, 58, believes his old friend helped bring about that shift. “I knew the power that Almodóvar had over morality in Spain at a very particular time in our history,” Banderas says. “Fifty years from now … we’ll tell people how well he described the reality of a very specific time in the history of our country — how things were broken to become different.”

For now, both men can bask in the somewhat unexpected adulation at home for “Pain and Glory,” which was released in Spain in March. Spaniards haven’t always been kind to their country’s most famous director since Buñuel (or vice versa), but his new film has won near-unanimous praise for its storytelling and its spare but beautiful style that stands in contrast to that of many of his earlier works.

Sony Pictures Classics, which has released 11 of Almodóvar’s movies, including “Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown” at Orion Classics, will open “Pain and Glory” in the U.S. on Oct. 4. (Sony now owns the entire Almodóvar library.)

The director considers the film to be the final panel of a triptych that began with “Law of Desire” (1987) and “Bad Education” (2004). One Spanish critic describes “Pain and Glory” as a “dark and obsessive film, but at the same time so generous that it is filled with light and emotion.” Another reviewer calls it “a summation and meditation on everything else he had done before.”

You’ve been quoted as saying that you hate “los bio-pics.” Isn’t this a biopic of you?
Pedro Almodóvar: This is not a biopic of me, not even a portrait. Obviously this is a film that starts off with me. I’m at the root of the script I started writing. But then when I carried on, it became just like any other film I would have written. You can’t take this film literally, but I have myself been down all those paths trodden by the character played by Antonio in the film, and I know them all in depth.

Look at the first shot of the film. Antonio’s character is suspended in water, just floating there, with no gravity at all. That image is from my own life, because during the summer it was my favorite place to go, to put myself in water and just hang there, weightless, not feeling my body or any tension. Immediately after I wrote that swimming pool scene, it took me by association to another memory from my childhood, which is also in the film, of my mother and her neighbors washing clothes in the river. It’s a luminous memory, totally opposed to the dark period that the main character is going through.

Antonio Banderas: Not everything that happened in the movie are things that happened to Pedro. There were things I knew he would have loved to say that he never said; there were things that he would have loved to do and he never did. It was auto-fiction. [I knew this] because we have been friends since 1980, so that’s almost 40 years now.

“There are very few directors — you can probably count them with your two hands — who actually are faithful to their personality and to what they are. That is valuable in our times.”Antonio Banderas

The most difficult thing was, how am I going to be able to play him without imitating him? For me that was very important. I went to him like a plain soldier: I took off my medals; I took off everything and I tried to be as naked as I could, to create from scratch, with no mannerisms that I was using before, the things that you know as an actor work for you. That is very painful. You are in a very uncomfortable place. All of those comfort zones I eliminated, and then we started.

The whole style of the film feels stripped down. Is this a new phase in your filmmaking?
Almodóvar: Absolutely. The style, the narration, is a continuation of what I did with “Julieta”: much more restrained and austere. Visually, the colors in this new phase are still vibrant and intense, because I’m not turning my back on the coloring of my films. But the tone of the narrative is more stark. This is quite a challenge for me, being such a baroque director, to move into this new phase. I don’t know whether I’ll go back again to what I was doing before, because I don’t normally look ahead and forecast what my next steps are going to be.

Banderas: I was coming from [TV series] “Picasso,” and all the research I did about him, I could observe that at the end, as a painter, he became more and more simple. He was not as baroque as he used to be, because he didn’t need it. When I observed that in Pedro, I knew that he was approaching an age in which he doesn’t want to be too baroque. He needs very little to express something very big. You can communicate complexity and depth without having to do too many strokes. I knew that, and I tried to add that to my acting.

Almodovar Banderas

Penélope Cruz plays an important role as Salvador’s mother, but the two of you never actually appear in a scene together.
Banderas: No. We had a very little thing in “I’m So Excited!” — cameos — but that’s the only time we’ve worked together. It may happen soon — a project in Spanish. I cannot talk about that, but it may be announced very soon. It is exciting for me because I admire her. I met her in New York when she was 18 years old. I was doing “Philadelphia” at the time, and she was thinking about moving to America.

Almodóvar: They asked me to write [a scene in “Pain and Glory”] for the two of them. They really liked the idea of working together. For Spanish cinema, they represent sort of a Mastroianni and Sophia Loren. So it is strange that we, and I include myself, haven’t written anything for the two of them, because they’re a very good couple physically. But there was no way.

One of your directing idols, Billy Wilder, once warned you not to move to Hollywood. Are you glad you took his advice?
Almodóvar: As with anything, never say never. But Hollywood, for me, largely means making movies in English. I’ve never said that I won’t shoot a film in English; in fact, there might be a chance in the near future for me to film in English. However, the way I would do it would be with funding from Europe. The way I produce the film would be the way we do things in Europe. It would not be the way they do things in the Hollywood studio system.

I’m used to working the way I work. I’m not saying I can’t be flexible about things, but when I hear what director friends who have worked or are working in Hollywood say, the freedom and independence I’m used to having might be a problem.

Banderas: He never accepted the bell that was [ringing] in Hollywood for him, inviting him to work in a studio, because I think he knew that he was going to lose something in that transaction. He’s been absolutely loyal; that’s very difficult in this industry. There are very few directors — you can probably count them with your two hands — who actually are faithful to their personality and to what they are. That is valuable in our times.

He has admiration for American cinematography; he loves many actors, I know, because we’ve talked about that — Meryl Streep, many of them who he would love to work with. But he wouldn’t be himself completely. I think that’s the problem.

Yet Spain itself hasn’t been so receptive to Pedro and his films.
Banderas: Spain is a very interesting country with many sins. And even if I try to say always that we have a pardon for every sin, this one sin that we have, envy, is unforgivable. Pedro is just too successful — that hurts a lot of people. Then there are people who think that if they confront Pedro, who is a king, then they become kings too. Eventually I felt it, but I don’t confront it. You need two to box. This is a country that is very, very pernicious and very bad for some people.

Almodóvar: I don’t have much of a relationship with the [film] establishment in Spain. I had more of one 10 years ago. We’ve had our ups and downs, and I’ve found it quite difficult to deal with those. It wasn’t so much about being upset for myself but more for the people working with me. I’ve won a lot of awards, probably more than I deserve, but I have felt hurt in the past for the people who work in my films.

Take “Talk to Her.” That film won so many awards from so many different countries — Italy, Russia, the U.S. — but not a single one from Spain [except best original score]. I even won the Oscar for best screenplay, and it was only the second time that Hollywood has given an Oscar for a screenplay that was not in English. But I felt bad for the technicians and the actors, because most of them really deserved recognition. It’s incredible that Marisa Paredes doesn’t have a Goya — or even Antonio. Antonio received an honorary Goya, but not for “Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!”, not for “Law of Desire.” It doesn’t mean I’m demanding an award. But sometimes for the people who I work with, who I feel grateful to because all of them were so generous to me, I feel very [bad] for them.

So has the warm response to “Pain and Glory” been a surprise?
Almodóvar: I have been surprised, because people in Spain don’t tend to go to the cinema to watch dramas anymore. Spanish cinema audiences have changed a lot over the last five or six years. Now, people tend to go to the cinema to watch local comedies, with actors they recognize from TV. So I really wasn’t ready for the success that the film has had. When you think about the subject matter, it’s a director with his aches and pains.

But the uncertainty I felt about how it would be received is exactly the same uncertainty I feel about every film. You just don’t know whether it’s going to work at all. Now I know that this one works completely. It cuts across society, people of all ages, sexualities. It’s always a surprise when a movie of yours moves the audience. This is a kind of miracle when that happens.

Banderas: We knew we were doing something that was worth it to be in. We didn’t expect the success of the movie in our own country. We have a saying in some places [in Spain]: “You cannot be a poet in your own town.” But in this case, it worked. It was something very mysterious. The movie could’ve suffered a rejection from many conservative newspapers, but even conservative papers said this is a piece from Almodóvar that will be remembered.

I need a lot of time when I finish a work to really know the weight of it, whether it’s good or bad. I need five or six years. Someday I’ll be zapping the television, and “Pain and Glory” [will be on], and then I’ll be connected to really what the movie is telling me. Right now, for me, it’s very difficult.

Fluidity of gender and sexuality has been present in your films from the beginning. Is society finally catching up with that vision?
Almodóvar: In Spain, the situation has improved a lot. Right now, fortunately, young trans people can make the transition within their families, at their schools, in their communities, and quite often it can be funded by our public health system. There are still some homophobic reactions from people in some parts of society, but I think it’s much less than what you’d see elsewhere, and those attitudes are not representative of Spanish society.

Where we’ve certainly made a lot of progress is in gender reassignment. In the past, a trans person had to certify their new identity in front of a forensic doctor, to demonstrate that your organs belonged to the gender you wanted to be known as. What a terrible and humiliating thing. Now, you don’t even need to have, let’s say, the final operation, which is a huge step forward. To feel as though you’re a man or a woman doesn’t depend on whether you have a vagina or a penis; it depends on something much more profound.

Almodovar Banderas

Banderas: When I was 25 and we were doing “Law of Desire,” my father and mother were very conservative, very religious people, and I remember thinking, how are they going to watch me in this movie kissing and making love with a man on the screen? Then it came to me. In Sequence No. 21, I kill somebody — I bite somebody in the mouth, and I throw him off the cliff to his death. And that was OK [with audiences]. I thought, why does nobody say anything in terms of the morality of killing somebody, but a man kissing another man or a woman kissing another woman is not accepted? There is something wrong here.

When my mother went to see the movie and she said, “Why did you do that [love scene]? Think of my friends!,” I said, “Think about this, Mama.” And she came to the [same] conclusion, and it’s the argument she used with her friends.

“I have no hostility toward Netflix or any other platform. But a film that may be up for an award really must be seen and shown on a screen in a cinema.”
Pedro Almodovar

When I did my second movie as a director [2006’s “Summer Rain”], I had a couple of actors who were gay, and both of them, in different moments of the movie, came to me saying, “When I saw ‘Law of Desire,’ I went back home that night and put my father and my mother on the sofa, and I confronted them and said, ‘Mama, Papa, I’m homosexual.’”

Now you’re bound for Cannes again. How would you describe your relationship with the festival?
Almodóvar: It’s a long relationship. Everybody thinks that I immediately came to Cannes from the beginning, but the first time I was there was in 1982, with “Labyrinth of Passion,” my second movie. It was in a section dedicated to first and second films. I was very happy because I was in Cannes. For me, it was like a dream. Nobody saw my movie.

The next time was in 1988, when we proposed “Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown” for competition, and they refused it. I went to the festival, only the market, but the screenings in the market became like the hot ticket of the festival, and I remember that some journalists asked [artistic director] Gilles Jacob why the movie that everybody was talking about was not in the festival.

I wasn’t in competition until 1999, with “All About My Mother.” That film was a huge hit, with the critics and the public. I think that was the time I got the closest to being awarded the Palme d’Or. The French think I’m absolutely obsessed with the Palme d’Or, but that’s not the case.

Banderas: Cannes is absolutely necessary in this confusing world of platforms, to have a festival that actually is anchored in cinema. I see my daughter, she can watch a movie [on a cellphone], and I don’t understand that. I say to her, “How can you appreciate the lighting work, how can you appreciate a good performance, if you practically don’t see the eyes of the actors?” “Oh, but I just follow the story, Papa!” I prefer to go to a movie theater and see movies as they were conceived in the mind of the creators. And Cannes has been fighting for that.

So Netflix films shouldn’t be allowed to compete.
Banderas: I’m a Netflix consumer. I surf around, and sometimes I find work that is interesting — movies from many different countries, in their own languages, from Italy, from Korea. I am not against that.

[But] if they want to compete with other movies, they have to play on the same track. It’s not really fair that you open in two or three theaters and then that’s it. You have to do promotional work; you have to compete at the same level as the rest of the movies. It’s a risky game, because you have to invest a lot of money, but I think it’s fair. If they want to compete in a festival like Cannes, or they want to go to the Oscars, that’s the way to do it.

Almodóvar: I have no hostility toward Netflix or any other platform. But a film that may be up for an award really must be seen and shown on a screen in a cinema. Otherwise, it would be almost a contradiction in terms, because films are conceived to be shown on a screen to people who are strangers, who don’t know each other, in the dark. That’s the magic of it all.

I saw “Roma” both on my own TV screen and on the big screen. When you see it on a TV screen, it makes it so much less interesting as a film. What I’m trying to defend is that pleasure, that ecstasy, that euphoria you feel when you see “Roma” on a big screen. All of that is stolen from us if we just end up seeing the film on a TV screen.

The lead character in “Pain and Glory” is afraid he’ll never make a movie again. Is that true of you?
Almodóvar: That fear is always there. It’s both the idea of not being physically able to shoot a film and of not having any new ideas. It’s the sword of Damocles hanging over you. At the moment, I’m thinking about an adaptation of a book in English, which would be my first. I can’t tell you the name now. It’s too early.

Antonio, do you expect to work with Pedro again?
Banderas: Every time I finish with Pedro, I never expect anything else. But then if he sounds the horn, I’ll be there. It’s impossible to say no to him.