This month at New York Film Festival, two esteemed foreign auteurs are showing films looking back on their lives and careers. Varda by Agnès, by Belgian filmmaker Agnès Varda, is a straight documentary. But Pedro Almodóvar’s Pain and Glory, which opens Oct. 4 after its NYFF run, isn’t quite that. It’s a fictional portrayal of Salvador Mallo, an accomplished, aging writer-director— played by longtime Almodóvar collaborator Antonio Banderas—who is suffering from depression, physical ailments, social isolation, a late-onset heroin habit, and—as a result of all this—a fear that he’ll never make another film.
If the familiar poof in Salvador’s hair– and the fact that “Salvador Mallo” is a rough anagram of “Almodóvar”– makes you wonder if there’s a little bit of Almodóvar in Salvador, why, yes, there is. During a press conference at Lincoln Center yesterday, the Spanish director said that while there were parts of him in the female and non-director characters of his previous 21 films, he is “reflected in a more intimate way in this movie.” Banderas put it a different way by describing Pain and Glory as a synthesis of what was and what could have been. The film is “more Almodóvar than Almodóvar,” he said, “because in a way he completes certain areas of that puzzle of his life by making this film.”
Don’t mistake this for pure confession. (“I don’t like auto-fiction,” Salvador’s mother, played by Penelope Cruz, says in the film, while scolding him for using her stories for cinematic fodder.) Here, based on Almodóvar’s comments yesterday, is what’s real, what’s fiction, and what’s a little bit of both.
HAS ALMODOVAR HAD STORMY RELATIONSHIPS WITH HIS ACTORS?
In the film: After 32 years without speaking to Alberto, an actor in his early film Sabor, Salvador decides to patch things up so they can present the film at a retrospective put on by the Spanish Cinematheque.
In real life: After appearing in five Almodóvar films, Carmen Maura famously had a falling out with the director after starring in Women On the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown. They reunited for Volver, 18 years later, but there was more bad blood when Maura publicly criticized Almodóvar’s self-described “authoritarian” directing style. They again reunited in 2017 for an Almodóvar retrospective at, yes, the Spanish Cinematheque.
Banderas and Almodóvar also had a rocky professional relationship after they filmed 1990’s Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! and Banderas started getting Hollywood roles. “Hollywood will break you, you’ll waste your talent,” Almodóvar reportedly warned him. The director was hurt when Banderas moved to the United States, and “felt like a mother who has lost her son,” Almodóvar told the New Yorker. Yesterday, Banderas confessed that there was some tension when they reunited for 2011’s The Skin I Live In, since he was eager to show off the acting tools he had acquired during his time in Hollywood. Almodóvar wasn’t impressed. “After a week of rehearsals,” Banderas recalled, “He said to me, ‘Actually, all of those things you’re bringing with you now, I cannot use them.” Almodóvar decided to cast Banderas in Pain and Glory after the actor suffered a life-changing heart attack in 2017. “I saw a picture of Antonio after the heart attack and what I saw was a mask of pain,” the director said.
HAS ALMODOVAR CHASED THE DRAGON?
In the film: Salvador picks up a heroin habit from Alberto, a longtime user.
IRL: Almodóvar said he has never done heroin, although “during the ’80s I was surrounded by many close friends that were into that.” But Salvador’s compulsion is based on one of Almodóvar’s own, the director said. Salvador’s “actual addiction is to making films. And the biggest pain he’s actually feeling is that sensation that he has that he’s never going to be able to shoot again.”
DOES ALMODOVAR DEMAND THAT HIS ACTORS TO BE SOBER?
YES AND NO
In the film: Salvador and Alberto’s falling out occurred because the actor went back on a promise not to use heroin during shooting.
IRL: A large part of the budget for Almodóvar’s early film Pepi, Luci, Bom went to food and alcohol, he told the New Yorker. On the other hand, he “imposed sobriety and compression” on the set of his 2016 film, Julieta.
IS ALMODOVAR ACTUALLY IN A WORLD OF PAIN?
In the film: Salvador suffers from tinnitus, migraines, shoulder pain, and a host of other maladies.
IRL: Just like Salvador, Almodóvar was severely hampered by back surgery. According to the New Yorker, “he is deaf in one ear and losing his hearing in the other.” Yesterday, Almodóvar revealed that while he didn’t want Banderas to mimic him, he did coach the actor on how to look like he’s in physical pain by, for instance, kneeling on a pillow when he picks things up. “Look at me, how I’m entering a taxi and how I get out,” he instructed Banderas, “because it’s not the normal way.”
DOES ALMODOVAR LIKE TO CHILL UNDERWATER?
In the film: The movie opens with a striking shot of Salvador seated underwater in a swimming pool.
IRL: In the summer before writing the script, Almodóvar was struck by a photo of himself underwater, where he likes to salve his muscle pain, and decided to open his film with similar imagery. The next scene, in which a young Salvador accompanies his mother as she washes linens in a river, is also based on Almodóvar’s life.
DID A YOUNG ALMODOVAR LIVE IN A CAVE?
In the film: As a boy, Salvador’s family is uprooted and scrapes by in a modest underground dwelling.
IRL: “I didn’t live, when I was a kid, in a cave, but I know the feeling of that guy,” said Almodóvar. During his childhood, his family moved from his birthplace of Castilla-La Mancha to Extremadura. “I now know what it means to leave your hometown and go to another place in a precarious way.” The cave homes are actually located in Paterna, Valencia.
AS A LITTLE KID, WAS ALMODOVAR SMART ENOUGH TO TEACH ADULTS TO READ?
In the film: The precocious young Salvador teaches writing to his family’s illiterate handyman.
IRL: Almodóvar’s “intelligence and sophistication already were clear” at the age of nine, according to the New Yorker. “His mother started a small concern writing and reading letters for illiterate neighbors.”
DID ALMODOVAR FAINT AT THE SITE OF A PAINTER’S PENIS?
In the film: Young Salvador experiences his first sexual stirrings when the handyman/painter strips down and washes up in front of him.
IRL: “I never fell in love when I was a kid with a painter and builder, but I could [have],” Almodóvar said yesterday, indicating that he was aware of his sexuality at a young age.
DID ALMODOVAR GET A CATHOLIC EDUCATION ON THE STRENGTH OF HIS SINGING?
In the film: Young Salvador, to his chagrin, gets a scholarship to attend a seminary after a priest singles him out as a talented singer.
IRL: “His parents sent him to Catholic boarding school, planning to train him for the Church,” writes the New Yorker. “He had a beautiful singing voice, and the priests admired him, but he hated the authoritarian education.”
DID YOUNG ALMODOVAR WATCH FILMS ON A SCREEN THAT DOUBLED AS A PISS WALL?
In the film: Salvador recalls how, during the summers of his youth, films were projected on a wall; water scenes caused the local children to pee on either side of the screen.
IRL: “In the summer in Madrigalejo, movies were projected on a wall of a building that, at other times, was used by boys to piss on,” the New Yorker writes. Yesterday, Almodóvar recalled how, from the ages of 10 to 12, he saw films like The Virgin Spring, campy Mexican sci-fi and fantasy films, Tennessee Williams adaptations, and films by Buñuel and Antonioni.
DID ALMODOVAR REKINDLE A LONG LOST LOVE?
In the film: Federico, an early lover, reunites with Salvador after watching a monologue the director wrote about their formative relationship.
IRL: Almodóvar said he has experienced “having to end an affair when passion was still alive and well,” but he wasn’t reunited with the person decades later. “That’s the nice thing about fiction,” he said, “is that you can write it and experience it through the actors.”
DID ALMODOVAR’S MOTHER TELL HIM SHE WANTED TO BE BURIED BAREFOOT?
YES AND NO
In the film: Salvador’s mother coaches him on how she’d like to be buried.
IRL: Per the Guardian: “Before she died in 1999, Almodóvar’s mother sat down to map out her own funeral. She decided how the service would be and what dress she would wear,” including the part about wanting her feet to be unbound so she could run free in the afterlife. But she gave the instructions to Almodóvar’s sister, per the Los Angeles Times. Yesterday Almodóvar explained, “In the movie sometimes I stole memories of my sisters, my brother, of some friends, or the other people that I was living with.”
IS ALMODOVAR’S APARTMENT THAT COOL?
In the film: Salvador’s apartment is packed full of modernist furniture, Hermès teacups, and artworks by Guillermo Pérez Villalta. “Those paintings are my only company,” Salvador says.
IRL: The apartment is a replica of Almodóvar’s own, the director said yesterday. “The paintings are mine, more than 50% of the furniture is mine,” he told the Los Angeles Times. And yes, Almodóvar doesn’t keep much other company. He has described himself as a “lonely solitary old man.”
DOES ALMODOVAR THINK HIS FILMS HOLD UP?
In the film: Salvador decides to attend the Sabor screening because he’s curious to see if it holds up after 32 years—and it does.
IRL: Almodóvar says he has seen performances in his older films get better with time. “Time is the worst enemy of films but also the best measure,” he said. “And I’m very thankful to time that it has respected my films.”
Note:Almodóvar alternated between English and Spanish during yesterday’s press conference; some quotes are his statements in English, others are his interpreter’s translations from Spanish.