Pain And Glory (Dolor y gloria)
Spain (2019) Dir. Pedro Almodóvar
Filmmaking means many things to different people – some like to use it as a tool to air an opinion or viewpoint on a serious matter, others like to experiment. There are those who choose to simply entertain and make people happy, whilst many auteurs treat film as a personal medium, sharing all they know and love on the screen with the rest of us.
Pedro Almodóvar has the unique distinction of being able to straddle every one of the above criteria in his films, though the one constant is they contain at least some slivers of his personal life within them. This may be his unwavering respect for women and mothers, or his championing of the LGBT community long before there was an LGBT community.
With Pain And Glory we find the normally gregarious Almodóvar at his most restrained and subdued in this incredibly meta piece of cinema, yet it is still easily recognisable as an Almodóvar film. It revolves around a middle-aged film director, Salvador Mallo (Antonio Banderas), experiencing a creative drought due to failing health he is too stubborn and lazy to seek help for.
A prestigious film festival wants to celebrate the thirtieth anniversary one of Mallo’s best-known films Sabor and has invited him to the screening. This prompts Mallo to reach out to the star of Sabor, Alberto Crespo (Asier Etxeandia), who he hasn’t seen since a public bust up at the time of its release. The reunion is amiable, with drug addict Alberto introducing Mallo to heroin, turning him into an emotional mess as he begins to recall his childhood with his mother Jacinta (Penélope Cruz).
Sporting a shock of grey hair and similarly shaded beard, it shouldn’t bypass anyone that Mallo is Almodóvar though without actually being Almodóvar. Akin to a social media avatar if you will, Mallo is there to represent an idea of whom and what Almodóvar is, taking the edge of any accusations of this film being a vanity piece or a self-indulgent confessional.
It is somewhat close to a confessional though but not in a way that Almodóvar is seeking absolution or redemption, rather as a man laying himself bare so the rest of us can take a look at our lives and not repeat his mistakes, if we choose to see them as such, or alternatively take comfort from knowing there is someone else out there like us. In other hands this would sound like a pretentious vainglorious project but Almodóvar is just too enigmatic to be so shallow.
Mallo’s childhood is one of poverty, forced to live in what amounts to a cave in Paterna, yet Salvador (Asier Flores) proves a prodigious talent, able to read and write before most adults can. By age nine he is teaching local brickie Eduardo (César Vicente) basic literacy in return for his doing up the cave. These flashbacks are randomly inserted into the story, often with little relevance to the current timeline but prove valuable in putting much of Mallo’s adult life into perspective.
Jacinta is the only representative of Almodóvar’s favourite trope, the strong matriarch, both in her younger days and as an elderly woman (played by Julieta Serrano), serving as Mallo’s regret on numerous levels. Because they were so poor, Jacinta sent Salvador to religious school which he did want, and she lived her life believing that the personal films Mallo made as an adult were revenge for this. “I don’t like auto-fiction” she opines.
The irony is Almodóvar’s mother passed away shortly after 1999’s All About My Mother, his love letter to her, screened at Cannes. Another figure from Mallo’s past returns via an unusual way when after another bitter falling out with Alberto, Mallo allows him to perform a personal memoir entitled Addiction as a one-man play. Without naming him, it reveals Mallo is gay though it name checks his first love Federico (Leonardo Sbaraglia), who just happens to be in the audience one night.
Like many reflective stories, Mallo finds revisiting the past and clearing up the loose ends finally gives him a reason to change his gloomy present and lay the foundation for a positive future. Again, this could have played out as a conventional melodrama, rife with a tears and gut-wrenching sentimentality but Almodóvar knows his audience won’t stand for that, thus remains in languid mode and lets it out occur naturally and without fuss.
So, how this is unlike other Almodóvar films yet still welcome in his extensive oeuvre? For a start the vibrant colours are still a vital part of the imagery, despite (or in spite) of the gloomy subject. The characters are all passionate to a fault, another Almodóvar trait, though whilst Mallo does go down the wrong path by taking heroin, his true addiction remains filmmaking.
Almodóvar’s trademark cheeky humour and unabashed gaiety may be subdued to the point of non-existence, which is understandable given the nature of the story, but he does manage to slip a couple of sly giggles in here and there. There veneer is pin sharp and gorgeous to look at, lifting the moods from potentially dour to tacitly joyous, whilst a sequence explaining Mallo’s numerous ailments employs detailed medical illustrations, bathed in neon colours, natch.
He may have made his name in Hollywood as a suave Latin lover, but Antonio Banderas was never better when under Almodóvar’s instruction (same for a typically vivacious Penélope Cruz) and his essaying of Mallo has to be considered a career best for him. With no mimicry or sense of caricature of Almodóvar to be found in his portrayal, Mallo is an original creation, whose skin he comfortably lives in (sorry).
Different but still enchantingly sublime, Pain And Glory is assuredly a more personal title for Almodóvar than it is apt for the story he is sharing with us, but if they say “No pain, no gain” then we, the audience, are the ones who have gained from his pain and his glory. Fantástico!