At the 2019 Cannes Film Festival, two of the big winners were Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite, which received the Palme d’Or, and Pedro Almodovar’s Pain and Glory, for which Antonio Banderas won Best Actor. While I don’t always agree with the Cannes jury, I did in these cases. It is difficult to imagine two films more different in theme and tone than Parasite and Pain and Glory. It is also difficult to imagine either film not among the Best Foreign Film nominees next February, or—barring anything unforeseen—one of the two not taking home the Oscar.
Of the two, Parasite is by far the harder-edged, combining horror and black humor in a way that suggests both Hitchcock and Kubrick. It begins with a down-on-its-luck family, the Kims—father Ki-taek (Song Kang-ho), mother Chung-sook (Jang Hye-jin), son Ki-woo (Choi Woo-shik) and daughter Ki-jeong (Park So-dam)—living in a shabby basement apartment. The Kims scramble to earn money any way they can—even folding boxes, badly, for a local pizzeria.
Change comes to the Kims in the form of Min (Park Seo-joon), Ki-woo’s old school friend. Min, who is leaving South Korea to study abroad, brings the family a large rock supposed to bring good fortune. Going out for a drink with Ki-woo, Min tells him of the job he’s quitting as English tutor to Da-hye (Jong Ji-so), daughter of the wealthy Park family. He suggests it would be a good job for Ki-woo. There’s only one problem: Ki-woo has never attended university. On Min’s suggestion, and thanks largely to the artistic and computer talents of Ki-jeong, the Kim family forges a set of credentials for Ki-woo that easily fool Mrs. Park (Cho Yeo-jeong), Da-hye’s ditsy mother.
From there, the Kim family’s campaign builds. Mrs. Park tells Ki-woo that she needs a new art tutor for Da-song (Jung Hyun-Joon), the Parks’ Bart Simpson-ish nine-year-old son. That’s the cue for Ki-woo and Ki-jeong to concoct a story about Ki-jeong being the artist friend of Ki-woo’s cousin, moving back to Korea from Chicago. Ki-jeong leaves her underwear in the Parks’ limousine, framing the chauffeur for rape; then she conveniently remembers her father’s former driver, who of course turns out to be Ki-taek. Discovering the severe allergy to peaches of Moon-gwang (Lee Jeong-eun), the Parks’ officious housekeeper, the Kims expose her unawares to peach fuzz, then persuade Mrs. Park that Moon-gwang’s cough is really tuberculosis. When Moon-gwang is dismissed, Ki-jeong gives Mrs. Park a card giving
the telephone number for an employment agency. It is actually the number for the Kims’ apartment. Mrs. Park calls; Ki-jeong, disguising her voice, tells Mrs. Park of a wonderfully qualified housekeeper named Chung-sook…
When the Parks leave on a camping trip, the Kim’s assemble in the Parks’ luxurious mansion, celebrating their takeover of the Park household by helping themselves liberally to the Parks’ liquor cabinet. “They’re rich, but nice,” Ki-taek says contentedly. Chung-sook contradicts him: “They’re nice because they’re rich.” Unexpectedly, the doorbell rings; the security camera shows it’s Moon-gwang, begging admittance.
And from there, dear viewer, it is unfair to describe in detail what happens. I can tell you that the story from that point is turned on its ear, while the Parks, ignorant of the apocalyptic turmoil in their own basement, blithely plan a birthday party for Da-song. By this time Parasite is resonating on so many levels--as social satire, horror comedy, and meditation on the workings of fate--that it leaves the audience in fascinated awe. Chung-sook’s assertion, quoted above, is extremely pertinent to the theme and action of Parasite. But so is the statement, quoted in the film’s trailer, that Ki-taek makes to Ki-woo toward the end: “Do you know what kind of plan never fails? No plan in the world.”
The screenplay by Bong and Won Han-jin is as sharp as razor wire, and the photography by Hong Kyong-pyo has a nightmarish clarity reminiscent of The Shining and A Clockwork Orange. The acting is superb down to the smallest bit part, with Choi Woo-shik and Lee Jeong-eun especially impressive in how they make their characters turn on a dime. A deeply unsettling film, Parasite leaves us with some mordant thoughts about social stratification as destiny. Parasite could justifiably be described as the anti-Roma, depicting a master-servant relationship in which love, truth, and devotion play no role at all.
Pain and Glory, as far as tone and theme are concerned, could just as easily be called the anti-Parasite. Muted and elegiac, Pain and Glory is Almodovar’s memory film, in which sheer physical pain is the impetus for a consideration of the vagaries of life and the consolations of art.
The film opens on Salvador Molla (Antonio Banderas) floating motionless and sad in a swimming pool—a man in pain, and in limbo. Molla, a renowned director, suffers from a myriad of physical ailments of which constant severe back pain is the most debilitating. His career is as immobilized as he is. Then Molla learns that one of his early films has been restored and is about to be re-released at a film festival. He is asked to introduce the film along with its star, Alberto Crespo (Asier Etxeandia), which whom he has not spoken in 30 years.
After some initial awkwardness, Molla and Crespo fall back into the old patterns of their relationship. One new development is that Crespo now smokes heroin; Molla, in agony because of his back, asks him for some. This, plus Crespo’s discovery of an unproduced autobiographical script by Molla, is the catalyst for Molla to review the totality of his life. This includes his relationship with his mother, played as a young woman by Penelope Cruz and as an old one by Julieta Serrano; his early life in the cave village of Paterna; his childhood friendship with Eduardo (Cesar Valente), a young stonemason and aspiring painter, and how they awaken each other in sharply different ways; and his youthful love in Madrid for Federico (Leonardo Sbaraglia), with whom he has a bittersweet reunion.
Almodovar’s films are difficult to summarize. In his earlier films, such as Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, the sheer outrageousness of the plots is the reason. But in later films, it is a matter of tone, ambience, the shifting situations and perceptions of the characters. More than any other living director, Almodovar gives us a feeling of life as it is lived, with successive layers of experience, thought, and emotion. That is certainly the case in Pain and Glory, a film so delicately nuanced that any misjudgment on Almodovar’s part would have thrown it off completely. Rest assured, he makes none.
Much has been made of the obvious autobiographical features of Pain and Glory. The name Salvador Molla is a partial anagram of Almodovar. Like Molla and Crespo, Almodovar and Banderas had a 21-year lapse in their professional (and presumably personal) relationship. Molla’s apartment in the movie is Almodovar’s own, and Banderas even wears some of Almodovar’s own clothes. How seriously we are to take these things is a matter of debate. What is undeniable is that Almodovar has given us a moving portrait of a man in flux, enhanced by a grave, nuanced performance by Banderas that ranks as one of the best of his career, and one of the best by anybody in the past few years.
Pain and Glory is a film of restrained but resplendent beauty; much of the credit for that goes to composer Alberto Iglesias (who also won an award at Cannes) and cinematographer Jose Luis Alcaine. But it is Almodovar who gives us the totality—emotional, intellectual and esthetic--of his Doppelganger, Salvador Molla.
Above all, Pain and Glory gives us an appreciation of how joy and sorrow are always mingled in life, and how art can express and reconcile that contradiction. At the end, the child Salvador (Asier Flores) and his mother are stranded in a train station. The mother is worried about their situation, but little Salvador is entranced by a fireworks display in the night sky. This is a wonderful demonstration of how differently two people can perceive the same event. But then Almodovar shifts to the very last scene. In this way he ends Pain and Glory with a heartening flourish, testifying to his belief in film as a transformative art.