Salvador’s torso bears a vertical scar. We come upon him (Antonio Banderas) sequestering himself, holding his shallow breath while his body is entirely submerged in a swimming pool. Yet, an underwater camera finds him. It reveals the thoracic surgical memento that runs about two feet long and a quarter-inch deep. Almodóvar’s film probes it for its metaphoric if not literal gravitas. He does this with a seasoned if congestive heart, pointillist vision, and deft hand.
The masterful camera (Jose Luis Alcaine) cuts back and forth from Salvador’s depression, chronic pain and remorse (consolation prizes awarded by creeping old age), to and from happier days. It propels us back in time to the protagonist’s materially cloistered childhood, during which he invoked a series of imaginative and delightful “gestiones” borne of a precocious aptitude for recognizing potential and rendering it kinetic, where others fall down on the job.
Salvador is a bereaved film director in his late sixties. He has withdrawn from the fading limelight and artistic connections that earlier on extruded the sap feeding his creative life. He learns that Alberto (Asier Etxeandia), an actor with whom he has shared a fractious past, has returned to Madrid. Salvador hectors his way into Alberto’s life against the actor’s wishes and better judgment. They replay past antagonisms as they smoke/snort lines of heroin. At issue this time is a script Alberto finds while nosing around Salvador’s computer desktop. It re-raises old antagonisms. They squabble; they make up; squabble; make up. The script molts into a black box theater production starring Alberto.
There are elements that recapitulate what we have been groomed to expect from an Almodovar film, such as a parade of two-dimensional female characters who exist solely to narrate the back story or serve as the factotums who rehabilitate the suffering or determinedly insufferable protagonist. The exception is Salvador’s mother Jacinta, played exuberantly by Penelope Cruz. Cruz channels a Sophia Loren-reminiscent proletarian charm, energetic optimism, and youthful stamina. Her performance leaves no doubts about why this son’s love for his mother is “fatal,” as the Spanish might pronounce it. What distinguishes this Almodovar tour de force is its subtlety, editing (Terese Font) and what conclusions it leaves to the viewer. A complex of events (rife with potential spoilers) provides a Stanislavsky-inspired taxonomy of creative acting opportunities. Banderas profits from them by slowing his neuro-receptors almost to the braking point. He delivers a perfectly paced rendering of a character whose regrets eclipse his achievements to the extent that he cannot tolerate the slightest suggestion of risk-taking. In a scene where a former lover Federico (Leonardo Sbaraglia ) reappears, many years’ married with children, Salvador takes what looks at first blush to be the high road, but this nodal moment ultimately leaves us wondering whether he does so because he has become convinced that there’s no fool like an old fool, and doesn’t want to self-humiliate (again!) or simply because in his life ledger, the deficits of risky behavior have come to outweigh its benefits.
Almodóvar’s Salvador, his career and surroundings, would not augur for the typical audience member identifying with his dilemma, brought on by aging, pain, and regret in the face of glossy success. And yet, because of the qualities he and his collaborators find in this work, one does. The design elements match the film’s well-tempered pace, fluidity, and meta-messages signaling how the past invited the present. Décor is tantalizingly rich and yet scant. We yearn to bury ourselves in the of bosom of a room’s interior, or long to float as do two adolescent women, side by side on their backs, like crescent moons, in an exhilaratingly restful moment of insouciant bliss. If this is an autobiographical libretto there is no satisfaction inherent in assigning it such a classification. It tells the story of an artist who becomes alienated from his work, his colleagues, from all but a lifelong indefatigable need to connect with the mother who “got” and nurtured him. In spite of the narrow harrow of her own existence, she opened a door to a culture beyond the “cava” in which they lived, the better to invite in that world and the limitless sky above it. (When Salvador opens the door for his former lover to leave, he does so with a wide flourish, to suggest that he is, on the one hand, closing it on the past, yet giving it wide berth to remain cosmically open). How does an artist who has achieved so much, reconcile himself to a contradiction that has been destroying him from the inside out? To find the answer, go see it!