Pain and Glory (2019)
Written & Directed by Pedro Almodovar
Pedro Almodovar is no strange to autofiction in his cinema, that doesn’t mean he’s always factually honest with us. Almodovar is very much an impressionist, more interested in the emotions and underlying psychology of events in our lives. Pain and Glory is the most obviously autobiographical, Antonio Banderas playing a version of the aging director. This is a meditation on the physical changes that come with time, how our bodies are both vessels of pleasure and suffering during our lives. The structure is that of interconnected short stories, vignettes centered around the protagonist that allow him to reflect and reconnect with people from his past.
Salvador Mallo (Banderas) is a Spanish filmmaker whose career is in decline. A revival of one of his hits in the 1980s is happening, and that makes him want to seek out lead in that picture. Alberto also has aged and lives in a gated bungalow, wiling away the days smoking heroin and taking acting jobs that do not fulfill him. The two men mull over making something new, but Salvador’s multiple ailments and chronic pain cause him to seek seclusion instead. As the film flows forward, Salvador continues to be reunited with people but also remembers his childhood. He grew up in the primitive cave village of Paterna in the 1960s, and we see him observing his mother (Penelope Cruz). These reflections allow him to see himself anew, understanding how he discovered his sexuality and learning about an estranged relationship that renews his soul.
It is fascinating to look at the arc of Almodovar’s film career. His first pictures were brash, provocative dark comedies bubbling over with youthful energy. That energy is still present in Pain and Glory, but it has been honed and refined by a master artist. The images in this picture are so sharp and robust, delivered by José Luis Alcaine, who has been with Almodovar since Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown. The color palette is gorgeous, backgrounds allowed to pop even the quietest discussions.
Early on, during a monologue given by Salvador, we get a montage of anatomical textbook images presented in neon against a black background. Salvador explains in detail the host of medical problems he’s dealing with as we get a look at the body deconstructed as a series of systems. The nervous system appears as he talks about the seemingly endless chronic pain that wracks his body. The spine is shown when he explains the fusion he was forced to have that leaves him with limited mobility. It is such a beautiful way to deliver exposition that the audience needs to know to understand the protagonist.
Almodovar doesn’t attempt to romanticize the pain of Salvador or the decisions he made in the past. It’s clear Salvador is at fault in many of the relationships he’s had that fell apart. Other relationships crumbled simply because of circumstance. At one point, Salvador is reunited with his former lover Federico. Their relationship ended when Federico’s problems with heroin became too big of an issue for the director to handle. This reunion proves to be a remarkable turning point for Salvador in coming to terms with his own addictions and pain management.
Pain and Glory is a series of events that connect to memories, the sort of contemplative film we get from artists in their later years. It would be reasonable to compare it to a work like Fellini’s 8 ½, where an artist discovers inspiration through a return to the roots of their identity. Almodovar does a masterful job of showing how impossible it becomes to create when mortality creeps in, and your body becomes uncooperative. Creation relies on a focused mind, and that focus evaporates when life becomes a toil. Ultimately, Salvador accepts who he is now, adapts to the needs of his body at this time in his life, and rediscovers a love of cinema.