Review: Pain and Glory
Pedro Almodóvar isn’t the type of filmmaker to make movies about his life. At least, his movies are rarely directly autobiographical. Rather, Almodóvar weaves together elements from his life into his films in ways that wouldn’t even register unless you knew to look for them. His latest, Pain and Glory (Dolor y gloria), is Almodóvar’s most introspective and autobiographical film yet, without seeming like self-congratulatory indulgence. Starring his long-time muse Antonio Banderas, as well as Asier Etxeandia, Nora Navas, Leonardo Sbaraglia, Asier Flores, Julieta Serrano, and Penelope Cruz, Pain and Glory is a meditation on life, cinema, art, and memory.
Salvador Mallo (Banderas) is an aging filmmaker with a host of physical ailments like chronic back pain and mysterious bouts of choking. He’s currently not working on any project because he feels physically unable, but is left frustrated and depressed without work. An art house theater restored his 1980s film Sabor, which he sees and enjoys with fresh eyes. The theater invites him to a Q&A, and suggests he bring the film’s star Alberto (Etxeandia), with whom Salvador had a falling out after the film. Salvador attempts to reconcile with Alberto, leading them to take heroin together. Through this encounter, Salvador recalls his childhood in the village of Paterna, with his mother Jacinta (Cruz), and his relationship with then drug addicted Federico (Sbaraglia).
The most fascinating part of Pain and Glory to me is its structure. Almodóvar sets up the plot as seemingly random coincidences; chance encounters and right place, right time. And how he weaves them all together is nothing short of majestic. Almodóvar is working with a new editor for the first time in his career, as for his last twenty films, Jose Salcedo was his collaborator in that regard. Sadly, Salcedo passed away after completing Almodóvar‘s 2016 film Julieta. Almodóvar hired the award-winning editor Teresa Font for Pain and Glory, and impressively, she seamlessly captures the meaningful randomness and elegant shifts back and forth in time. Pain and Glory at times feels aimless, but as it reaches its conclusion Almodóvar clicks things together. Certainly repeat viewings would be rewarding to catch glimpses of the tapestry he is creating.
It’s quite captivating how effortlessly meta Pain and Glory is, both within and without the film. On an external level, we’re watching a movie in which Antonio Banderas plays a version of Almodóvar, wearing the director’s real clothes in a set that replicates Almodóvar’s own apartment. Salvador and Alberto had a falling out in the late 1980s, mirroring Banderas and Almodovar’s relationship until 2011’s The Skin I Live In. Salvador is homosexual, and comes from a Catholic village in Spain. However, Salvador becomes addicted to heroin, a drug that Almodóvar always steered clear from (his preferred intoxicant: cocaine). And Salvador’s chronic pain doesn’t come from real life either. I don’t think Salvador is a stand-in, but rather a version that could have been. Even within the film, Pain and Glory plays with metafiction. Salvador writes a confessional essay called Addiction, which Alberto performs in a one-man show about his drug-addicted former lover, Federico. Federico happens to catch the show, and is moved by a version of his life and reunites briefly with Salvador. This highlights a theme of return. Memories return, art returns, pain returns, glory returns. But this isn’t just a movie about the past, but how to reconcile the past to move forward and keep creating.
Antonio Banderas offers a surprisingly restrained performance; the normally intense and exciting actor pulls back in illuminating ways. Every bit of pain, every reflection, is viscerally felt. It’s truly an outstanding turn, and possibly the best of his career. Asier Flores as the young Salvador is introspective and curious with such an inherently compelling presence on screen. Asier Etxeandia is wonderfully prickly and charming, with Leonardo Sbaraglia providing some heartfelt moments. As the younger and older versions of Jacinta, both Penelope Cruz and Julieta Serrano light up the screen. Cruz especially is quite good, painting a vivid portrait of motherhood. Serrano and Banderas played mother and son twice before in Almodovar’s Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown and Matador, and they have a lovely chemistry through their wrenching scenes.
Pain and Glory is somber and melancholy, but can be splittingly funny like most Almodóvar films. The vibrant cinematography (by longtime collaborator Jose Luis Alcaine) and eccentric production design (Antxón Gómez) are just gorgeous to behold, with some jaw-dropping shots. The romantic, enigmatic score by Alberto Iglesias effectively carries the film forward. Pain and Glory is such a stunning film, and a perfect encapsulation of what makes Almodóvar such an exciting filmmaker.