Editor’s note: The views and opinions expressed in this review are solely those of Marlon Wallace and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of WBOC.
This is the official submission from Spain to the 92nd Academy Awards for Best International Feature. It was written and directed by Pedro Almodóvar. It is the seventh time that Spain has submitted one of Almodóvar’s films. Two of his films have been nominated for Best Foreign Language Film, including Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown (1988). Of those two films, he did win the Oscar in that category for All About My Mother (1999). Almodóvar himself has been nominated for the Oscar twice in other categories. He was nominated for writing and directing Talk to Her (2002), which is actually the first Almodóvar film that I saw in theaters and still remains my favorite of his films. He won Best Writing for Talk to Her. Almodóvar is considered one of the most celebrated filmmakers from Europe of all-time. His career has spanned over 30 years now. He just turned 70 this year and this film is semi-autobiographical as he looks back on his life, emphasizing those specific people, places and things that have had the most profound effect on him.
Like with most of Almodóvar’s films, this one deals with artists in the film business or individuals who are tangential to that business. Like with most of his films, it also incorporates or centers around queer characters. Like with a few of his films, it also features people handling health or medical issues. For example, a large chunk of Talk to Her takes place in a hospital. This film also had in leading roles two actors whom Almodóvar has frequently used in his films, going all the way back to the mid-1980’s. This film is not as provocative as Almodóvar’s previous narratives. There really aren’t any extreme or violent acts, which he entertained in a few of his early works. This film is probably his most tame. He teases the possibility of something provocative happening here but doesn’t go through with it. Almodóvar’s last feature, Julieta (2016) was also a bit tamer than the Spaniard’s previous works, but this film is arguably tamer than that.
Antonio Banderas, who has been in over a half-dozen of Almodóvar’s films, including The Law of Desire (1987) and The Skin I Live In (2011), stars as Salvador Mallo, a filmmaker who is supposed to be the proxy for Almodóvar and even has a similar hairstyle as Almodóvar. He’s a filmmaker who is ostensibly in retirement. He explains that he can’t work in his condition. His condition is that he has various health issues. He has coughing fits, which are on top of back pains and other bodily issues. Through voice-over and animation of his anatomy, we learn that he has a litany of problems and pains. He needs to take a series of drugs in order to alleviate those pains and help him get through the day-to-day. He develops an addiction to pain medications, which increases to a possible heroin addiction or what a friend calls “chasing the dragon.”
Salvador learns that one of his films from some time ago called Sabor is being honored at a film festival or for some event. The organizers of the event want Salvador and an actor from the film to attend a Q and A. As Salvador decides on whether he’s going to attend this event and as he decides on what he’s going to do with his career vis-à-vis his health issues, he encounters a series of people. All of whom remind him of his past, particularly his childhood and his relationship with his mother.
Penélope Cruz has been in about four or five of Almodóvar’s films, including Volver (2006), which won Cruz the Oscar for Best Leading Actress. Here, she plays Jacinta, the mother to Salvador. We see her when Salvador is only 8- or 9-years-old, which is probably in the late 1950’s or early 1960’s. She is apprehensive when her husband wants to move the family to a remote village where they would have to live in a veritable cave. Literally, their home is built inside a cave that has no electricity or running water. She settles into it and plans to send Salvador to a seminary because it’s the only opportunity for an education and a way out of this impoverished and limited life, even though young Salvador doesn’t want to go to a seminary. She struggles to make a life in their new environment, as well as provide Salvador want he needs or wants.
Julieta Serrano (Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown and Matador) plays Jacinta in the present and as an elderly woman. There is an interesting scene involving older Salvador talking to her about their relationship as mother-son. She says that she didn’t want to be represented in any of his films. It follows and precedes two scenes, which are about artists who put people whom they know and for whom they have loving feelings into their work. In those other scenes, the subjects never opposed being subjects in whatever artistic work, but Salvador’s mother does oppose it. I’m not sure this film totally reconciles this idea of tension between artists and their subjects, but that theme is present here.
Asier Flores plays Salvador Mallo as a little boy. In the aforementioned scene that follows older Jacinta opposing being the subject of older Salvador’s art, we see younger Salvador being unknowingly the subject of an artist’s work. That artist is an attractive, teenage boy named Eduardo, played by César Vicente. It wouldn’t be until 50 years later that Salvador would get to see Eduardo’s work, but it affects him to know that this artist is gazing at him, even as young Salvador is gazing at Eduardo, not necessarily with the artist’s eye but with instead a lustful eye.
The dots don’t start connecting until one puts it into the context of the scene that comes before older Jacinta opposing being the subject of older Salvador’s art. Older Salvador writes a play, the subject of which is an Argentinian man with whom Salvador had relations many years ago. That man named Frederico Delgado, played by Leonardo Sbaraglia (Wild Tales and Burnt Money), sees the play and then visits Salvador at his home. Besides being a scene of homoerotic tension between these two gorgeous men, it’s also a scene of subject confronting artist in a more loving way or certainly a different way than between older Salvador and his mother.
That scene between Salvador and Frederico was one of the sweetest moments in the film. As mentioned, it’s a scene of same-sex attraction. Mostly though, it’s chaste and restrained. Yet, there is a kiss between Salvador and Frederico that’s one of the hottest kisses I’ve seen on the big screen in a while. That scene of same-sex attraction wasn’t the only one. There was another that followed, which had the potential to take the film into a provocative area. Even though the film had been tame and chaste until this point, it still had the potential to be very, very bold.
Young Salvador gazes at Eduardo, as said, with a lustful eye. It seems like mostly innocent glances until after a day of hard labor, Eduardo decides to strip naked and take a bath in the center of Jacinta’s living room. It’s not clear in that moment if Eduardo is aware of Salvador’s same-sex attraction and is playing into it, essentially being a tease. Unfortunately, Almodóvar doesn’t go anywhere with this. There have been a few international films over the past few years to deal with same-sex attraction in gay minors or gay people under the age of 13. There is certainly some skittishness to explore such issues of homosexuality for people that young, which was evidenced by the backlash to The Fosters, which had the youngest, same-sex male kiss on television, as well as the slight backlash to Call Me By Your Name (2017), for the age difference issue. Some might appreciate that skittishness. I think that by not exploring it further, it misses a bold opportunity.
Rated R for drug use, language and full-frontal nudity.
Running Time: 1 hr. and 53 mins.
In select cities, including Rehoboth Beach on Nov. 15.