Pain and Glory: How to Tell a Love Story in 5 Minutes

In today’s day and age, speed is what matters most. You don’t want to bore the viewer. You want to deliver him the most vital information in the shortest amount of time. You want him to experience feelings within a short time span. You want him to get the juice of the story before he decides to switch channels or fast-forward, which, let’s admit it, we all do.  One could say that the main challenge for a filmmaker is to give the viewer what he wants when he wants it. Not an easy thing to do considering how simple it is then to mess up the crucial part of the story or worse yet, mess up the whole movie. Fortunately, Pedro Almodovar, the legendary Spanish film director of the modern melodrama, embraces this challenge in his latest Oscar-nominated film, Pain and Glory.

Salvador is in a world of pain.

Antonio Banderas plays Salvador Mallo, a chronically ill film director who is at a point in his life where pain is overshadowing his creativity, to the point that an old friend of his turns him onto heroin. The film jumps back and forth between Salvador’s past as a young boy in rural Spain, travelling with his mom to a new house in the countryside (which turns out to be a cave) and attending high school at a seminary for priests, to his pain-filled present, with him lying around his house, struggling to get up from bed and refusing to get back to work on a new project. However, halfway through the film, Salvador’s old friend and actor Alberto Crespo, with whom Salvador had a falling out on his most acclaimed movie thirty years prior, digs up a monologue that Salvador had stored away in his computer. The monologue turns out to be, in Alberto’s opinion, the director’s greatest, most personal piece of work, and the actor insists on putting it up at a local theater. What follows, is the movie’s best five minutes of runtime.

The staged monologue.

The premise to Salvador’s love story is in the scenes where Alberto recites the monologue to an audience. The monologue recounts the film director’s early days in Madrid in the 80s, where he had to put his career on hold in order to take care of his boyfriend, who at the time was struggling with a heroin addiction. This premise is painful. As painful as Salvador’s present day illness. What Alberto does not know, however, is that Salvador’s real-life former lover is in the audience watching his performance. Tears streaming down his face. A broken smile. A slight twitch to his eyes. Turns out he’s in Madrid for work and decides to pay Salvador a visit after the show.

Federico in the audience.

With this in mind, we enter the best five minutes of the entire film. Five minutes which will serve to tell the love story of a lifetime. The two lovers meet in Salvador’s apartment. They’ve both aged. They’re both worn down. They’ve both moved on. And yet, the moment they see each other, it’s like time stopped in their days of youth. Almodovar’s simple and effective staging of this scene allows us to savor every moment of this  long-awaited reunion because we already know the backstory thanks to the preceding monologue, where through Alberto’s performance we learned of our protagonist’s most painful secrets and memories.
The tears have already been shed. We know what both Salvador and his former lover, Federico, have gone through together. Thus, in the five-minute-long reunion there is no need to go back down memory lane. Salvador and Federico can remain in the present moment. As an audience we are aware of how incredibly important the moment they are about to share is and thus Almodovar can play this scene without directly addressing us. We are already in it.

Sharing a glass of Tequila.

Their conversation is bare. Simple. Federico tells Salvador about his current life in distant Buenos Aires. His restaurant. His kids. His parents. But from time to time, there is a spark between the two in the form of brief moments that allude to a shared past, when Salvador says, ”I needed Madrid. I also needed you. But not in that state.” And Federico replies, ”Love is not enough to save the person you love. You say it in your monologue.” 
Almodovar proceeds to unravel the love story through the acknowledgment of the audience’s intelligence. Like any good filmmaker, he believes the viewer is up to the challenge of putting the pieces from the monologue together without having the characters explicitly have to re-tell their backstory. The weight of how much this scene means is entirely up to you to figure out for yourself. When Salvador says, ”You didn’t interrupt anything, Federico. On the contrary, you filled my life like nothing and nobody has filled it until now,” it hits particularly strong, because by now we’ve witnessed how empty and trivial Salvador’s current life seems on the surface. Like a sudden plot twist, we are unexpectedly met with this rich, absorbing love story that has already taken place. We are only allowed to witness the remains of it. Almodovar achieves this without the use of flashbacks perhaps because the past Salvador and Federico have shared is better to be re-lived in the present as it is. Live the moment, not the memory (which, ironically enough is something that Salvador does throughout the entire film, except for this scene.)

Some feelings…

The two smile looking at each other, maintaining a distance while sitting in Salvador’s living room and sipping on a glass of Tequila. But their eyes are watery. And their smiles are just like Federico’s broken smile when he was listening to the staged monologue. There is a long, rocky story behind them. And only they have access to the full version. And that is how you tell a love story in five minutes. You give the viewer an idea, a suggestion, but you trust him enough to expand on it by himself. You don’t give him cues. You don’t push him toward a clear answer. You keep him in the dark. You give him a flashlight and tell him, ”Go ahead.” And you’ll see for yourself, the pay-off to such a scene is devastatingly moving.

…never fade away.

Biutiful Man

Today’s topic: the presence of death in film. It’s always there, isn’t it? That cold feeling in your stomach, afraid that the character you’re following might be a few steps away from his last one. Goose bumps. Will the movie end? What’ll happen if he/she dies? Death can be the running engine of an entire film. We wait for action, and often action results in a character’s death on-screen. It’s what sometimes stimulates us to watch the movie – we wait for something to happen, we wait for the story to unfold, we desperately need an event to occur in the last minutes of the running time. However, out of the many death-driven films out there (Mar adentro, Amour, The Downfall) the most curious and, oddly enough, beautiful  one I’ve ever encountered is Iñárritu’s 2010 acclaimed drama, Biutiful. Ironic title.

Lead by a staggering performance given by Javier Bardem, the film tells the story of a man, named Uxbal, who is destined to die. Soon. And he knows it. That’s it. That’s the whole plot for those who’ve never heard of this project. Uxbal is as human as humans can get. His hair is becoming grayer and grayer, his skin pale as milk, his eyes like oil wells, dark. He lives in the rough neighborhood of Barcelona, where the tourists refuse to come visit. They’re right. Only a dead man like Uxbal can walk those streets. He’s got nothing to lose, yet at the same time, everything. His two kids, looking up to him. Looking up to who? A man who lives off other people’s lives. In this case, immigrant Asian workers trapped inside illegal underground workshops, sewing clothes that will end up on Barcelona’s black market. Uxbal treats them better than the usual smugglers, in some scenes reminding us of the good Samaritan. Does it matter? He is a criminal living off his last days. A cloud over his head, waiting for the right moment to let it rain.

Family man. Last chance to make things right and then it's gone.
Family man. Last chance to make things right and then it’s gone.

Uxbal has powers. He hears voices. Spirits telling him the end is near. He urinates blood. Wipes it with a handkerchief. Does it matter? You’re going to go, old man. However, Uxbal is not afraid of dying. He knows it’s not up to him to decide. But he must fix some things. Fix the cracks he’s opened. He must put food on the table. He must  kiss his little daughter’s forehead. He must teach his children a few valuable life lessons; no swearing, always fight for what’s right, never back down, and learn English. Death slowly  creeps into Uxbal’s soul and body, weakening his physique, stepping on his back until he can’t stand up from the toilet. He coughs, and every time he does it, a minute goes by. A moment flies away. Uxbal’s ultimate goal is to get off the streets, stop the criminal activity. Stop the pain he’s been inflicting on other people his whole, entire miserable life. That’s when in one of his workshops there is a gas leakage that kills all the sleeping employees; women, elders and babies. That’s blood on Uxbal’s hands. It’s the ultimate punishment. A reminder that no one gets away without consequences. Death might take you away from the world you’re living in but it won’t take you away from your sins. There is no way out of that. Forgiveness is what he asks for. In vain. Death is no listener. You need to get dirty one last time. Uxbal does. Dragging out the bodies by night, to the beach, to the open sea, making it look like a refugee tragedy. The bodies, floating in the open sea are everything that Uxbal’s tried to fight during the last moments of his life. There is no redemption, no last minute salvation. It’s take it or leave it.

The last crime.
The last crime.

Uxbal cries. Death has stolen his tears. His cheeks are dry. Is he really crying? That’s what death does to you. It makes you wonder if you’re still feeling anything, if you still got what it takes to be considered a human being. It makes you think about all the evil things you’ve done while you were alive and hits you with the reality: it’s too late, old man. You’re gone. You’re history. Your thoughts, your opinions, your advice and suggestions, they don’t matter anymore. Your words of love, anger, frustration and happiness are gone with the wind. Uxbal spins around, takes a deep breath and looks up at the night lights of Barcelona. What now, spirits? Is it time? One last word to his daughter. The death of a criminal. A peaceful death. They hold hands. And while she admires his family ring, a beautiful object that has connected Uxbal’s predecessors since the early ages, Uxbal drifts off…

Uxbal’s in a forest. That’s death. Peace, quiet, silence. It’s snowing. A man appears out of nowhere. An angel? Uxbal’s lost father? They smoke together. Laugh.

That’s when Uxbal, for the first time in his life, feels clean. Saved.

Ending the journey of life.
Ending the journey of life.