Pedro Almodovar‘s new film Pain and Glory (or Dolor y Gloria in Spanish) is a lovely paean to filmmaking, art and — perhaps not least — to the famed auteur’s life and legacy as an art house provocateur. It’s not the first time the Spanish filmmaker’s made a film about a Spanish filmmaker and it’s definitely not the first time he’s centred on the relationship between a boy and his mother, but there does seem to be something fitting about this particular film at this particular time in his venerable career – Almodovar is now seventy years old.
Pain and Glory stars veteran Almodovar collaborator Antonio Banderas as Salvador Mallo, a celebrated filmmaker who hasn’t been working on anything due to depression and various injuries and illnesses. When we first see him, he is suspended below water in a swimming pool, staring out into the cold watery depths with a passive face and defeated eyes, hands suspended as if he is a floating crucifixion. A jagged operative scar up his belly and chest signifies the various operations and procedures he’s had to endure while suffering from a spine fusion, arthritis, a severe depression, and unexplained fits of choking that assail him for no reason. He avoids people, but when he is invited to a screening of one of his old classics at the cinematheque (a film called ‘Sabor’ or ‘Flavour’), he decides to reach out to Alberto Crespo (Asier Exteandia), the lead actor whom he hasn’t talked to for thirty-two years (!) to join him on stage after the screening for a Q & A. As the film progresses, we learn that Alberto was a heroin user who played his role against Salvador’s intentions. Salvador intended the character to be a manic coke addict. but Alberto played him as a heavy heroin addict due to a very real smack habit — which sounds hilarious as these kinds of heavy details are often scattered through Almodovar’s films with an airy aplomb – but Salvador has now reevaluated Alberto’s performance and likes it.
Salvador visits Alberto unannounced, endures his initial hostility, extends the invitation for the Q & A, and then casually tries heroin for the first time and develops a taste for it – of course, it’s a far more effective (and consuming) method of pain management compared to his pills which he crushes into an unsatisfying cocktail. They form an uneasy partnership of sorts and we think the movie’s going to be about them (a late-life fling perhaps) but it’s not.
There seem to be three discernible acts in the film; only the first involves Alberto. The second involves the return visit of Federico (Leonardo Sbaraglia), Salvador’s ex-lover from a long time ago who is now married and living in South America. They have not seen each other for a very long time and though Federico seems to have moved on from the unhappy ending of their long-ago relationship, Salvador has not. The third act involves flashbacks to Salvador’s mother Jacinta, late in life, living with him in his Madrid apartment. Jacinta (played by Penelope Cruz in flashbacks to his childhood and by Julieta Serrano as an older woman) is a typical Almodovarian mother: brassy but practical, bossy but nurturing, interested in the arts without being particularly artistic herself. She chides him for being unkind to her when he first moved to Madrid and refused to let her join him. Salvador replies that she wouldn’t let him be himself and I couldn’t figure out whether he meant being an artist, being gay, or both.
It’s always interesting to see Banderas in an Almodovar film because you see what a thoroughly solid actor he is in his native tongue. Those abilities for some reason never translate well in the American movies. Banderas’ eyes are extremely expressive as he shuffles from encounter to encounter, communicating pain, sadness, and a yearning for something unfulfilled this late in life despite his success. The pain and glory alluded to in the title refer to the aspects of the creative life which Almodovar seems to feel are inseparable – the physical pain that Salvador lives with was something I could very much relate to even though my own troubles are minuscule compared to his, and I suppose the film expects you to intuitively understand the connection between the two modes, which I think is not unreasonable. Being melancholic, the film tends to focus more on the pain than the glory. That is largely in Salvador’s past.
That’s okay. It’s still a very moving film as many of the director’s latter films tend to be. It doesn’t have the zany provocative humour of the last Almodovar film I saw in the theater (I’m So Excited – some of the audience members were quite disgusted as I recall from what I overheard) and it doesn’t have the great melodramatic movements of All About My Mother or Talk to Her or The Skin I Live In, but it’s a fitting companion to these films nonetheless. It bears Almodovar’s signature rich colour scheme and just enough irrepressible subversion to signal his non-conformity, all the while balancing it with a late period melancholic dignity and refined pacing to contend as a major art film of the year. It’s lovely and it ends with Salvador finding an in-road to his creativity again – go see it.