Deep into the layered folds of Pedro Almodóvar’s atmospheric and powerful new film Pain and Glory, a typically stylish and slyly semi-autobiographical entry in the director’s filmography, our aging director protagonist (Antonio Banderas) utters a mantra-like statement: “Cinema saved me.” In his own way, the sensual iconoclast Almodóvar has helped saved cinema.
The legendary Spanish director/auteur, whose acclaimed new film is the epicenter of a retrospective series at the Riviera Theatre starting this weekend, is, at age 70, both timely and timeless. Pain and Glory is a triumphant late-period, valedictory self-reflection, sometimes evocative of a quieter, gentler variation on Fellini’s artfully navel-gazing cinematic tour de force 8½.
Unlike many of his peers in the upper echelon of living directors, Almodóvar’s rare blend of aesthetics, melodrama, stylistic audacity, and new ways of dealing with the human condition has allowed his work to gain traction in both the film festival/arthouse orbit and the more populist movie-house world.
Fittingly, the Riviera series was organized by Roger Durling, longtime artistic director of the Santa Barbara International Film Festival (which also runs the Riviera). The series includes such prominent Almodóvar titles as his 1988 breakout film Woman on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, Best Foreign Film Oscar winner All About My Mother, Bad Education, Volver, The Skin I Live In, and 2016’s Julieta in its Santa Barbara screening debut.
But Pain and Glory is the series catalyst, the prism through which the other titles were put into place, said Durling. “When I saw the new film, I thought a retrospective was needed,” he asserted. “Although Pain and Glory stands on its own, it becomes richer the more familiar you are with his earlier work. He has always ‘sampled’ other works of cinema and art in his movies. Now he’s sampling himself.”
More broadly, Durling — who, in addition to his life as SBIFF head, has taught a film studies class at SBCC for 17 years — makes the blanket statement that “to me, Almodóvar is cinema. I have always had an affinity to his work, being Latino myself. His is one of the most original voices. He uses melodrama to grab the audience’s attention like Douglas Sirk did in the ’50s, and, like Sirk, he tackles really important themes.”
Among those themes and recurring casts of characters, Durling noted, are “the outcast; the characters on the fringes of society; his celebration of women. His color schemes, his composition, his serpentine narratives that have always been carefully constructed,” he said. “These are all things I have greatly admired. He makes messy lives look so spectacular and human at the same time.”
From a cinematic standpoint, Durling commented that, “on the surface, his films are very accessible. That’s where melodrama becomes a hook. But his storytelling and visual style — and composition — are intricate and with so much depth.”
Although SBIFF has never officially screened an Almodóvar film, until this off-season program, the festival has touched on Almodóvar and shown clips via “six degrees of” approaches, presenting tribute evenings to Almodóvar collaborators Penelope Cruz (also a key performer in the new film) and Javier Bardem.
On another note, the upcoming Almodóvar retrospective marks the launch of what promises to be a periodic “series series” in the future programming approach at the Riviera. When asked if he plans to organize more retrospectives and special series, Durling said “a resounding and enthusiastic ‘yes.’ Almodóvar is just the beginning, and the perfect way to start.” As a bonus, he said, “It will be fitting to see an Almodóvar film in the Spanish colonial style of the Riviera Theatre, surrounded by all those glorious red seats.”
4•1•1 | Viva Pedro: An Almodóvar Retrospective runs Friday-Thursday, October 25-31, leading up to the release of Pain and Glory on Friday, November 1, at the Riviera Theatre, 2044 Alameda Padre Serra. See sbiffriviera.com.