Directed by Pedro Almodovar
Pain and Glory feels like the type of film every director with a long enough career gets around to making. It’s slightly meta and certainly autobiographical, an artist reflecting on his career, his childhood and the ups and downs of life.
It’s influenced, as so many are, by Federico Fellini’s 8 1/2, a famous director struggling with some amount of depression and dissolving in and out of his own fragmented memories. We get the sense that despite the character’s success there is something missing, something that has gone wrong. The film explores where that might have begun as the director seems to stagger towards the finish line, but then he finds meaning in the whole experience and turns it into his next film. It’s a despair that is re-contextualized so that it might just be a continual part of the process of creation.
The director here is Salvador Mallo (Antonio Banderas). He’s aging, his body giving him fits, and because of that the physical performance is purposefully stiff. He has the marks of a life fully lived, but like the color of his hair all that is left is ash. He looks perpetually frazzled, even if he’s a step slow to react. His movements are slow and precise do to headaches and back pain, and the gears of his mind only move more slowly, perhaps burned by years of pain and heartache.
He will make amends with an actor and old friend to whom he hasn’t spoken to in a couple decades (much like with Almodovar and actress Carmen Maura), develop a subtle heroin addiction (if subtle is possible), relive old cinematic glories and spend the rest of his days badgering his personal assistant and thinking about his childhood with his mother (played by Penelope Cruz).
Salvador is a lonely man, but the reunion with the actor friend, Alberto (Asier Etxeandia), breathes some life back into him, even if it’s still imbued with the same petty squabbles that torpedoed their friendship back in the day. They created something lasting together, a film which Salvador is told is now a classic, and that seems important enough to bridge the divide between them.
When Alberto reads a personal essay Salvador has written he pleads to play the lead role. It’s only out of guilt, after outing Alberto’s heroin addiction, that Salvador gives him the role. Because the story is so personal, just as this must be to Almodovar, he refuses to put his name on the one-man show production.
After a production of the play Alberto meets the character on whom one of the central figures is based. He is a flame from Salvador’s past whose own heroin addiction disrupted their relationship. The man, now clean, visits Salvador and yields another trip down memory lane.
The film cuts back and forth between this present and Salvador’s memories of childhood, spent predominantly with his mother. They are imbued with nostalgia and provide a glimpse of what Salvador might still be searching for. There was something there, whether just childhood innocence, that he has lost in the decades since.
The whole film is rather bittersweet in this way. It is both tender and melancholic but so too rather funny. Even in Salvador’s present misery the film finds time to present him in a playful light. Even his budding heroin addiction is played at times for comedy.
So the whole thing is deeply empathetic and personal, but it’s also granted a level of comic objectivity. Everything Salvador experiences, the highs and lows, really aren’t so unique, just a part of this whole experience. The fact that he struggles so much with it, in neurotic ways, is kind of amusing and I think purposefully so.
These films, like 8 1/2 or Woody Allen’s Stardust Memories or Paul Mazursky’s Alex in Wonderland, they all indulge in an artist’s misery. These characters come from a place of privilege that allows them to dig that much deeper into their own psyche, because there remain few immediate challenges before them. It’s not an indictment of character, of course, just an apparent consequence of artistic commercial success in which your own experience of the world has been commodified and proven valuable. The subtle ways you perceive something might only sneak in at the edges of a couple early films, but with continued success those personal touches must take over until they’re all you’ve got.
It feels like the same problem comedians might face should they become too successful, wealthy and cut off from the problems of the world that once related them to their audience.
At any rate Pain and Glory is quite good and quite touching. It’s at once silly and pompous but so too deeply humanizing and sincere.
Up Next: Transsiberian (2008), In the Tall Grass (2019), Phoenix (2014)