Film Review: Pain & Glory

Celebrated Spanish Filmmaker Offers “Autofictional” Story Of Celebrated Spanish Filmmaker

Devin D. O'Leary
6 min read
Pain & Glory
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Director Pedro Almodóvar and actor Antonio Banderas have been working together since 1982’s Labyrinth of Passion. On the occasion of their newest collaboration (their seventh), it’s hard not to look back on their body of work and think of it as a single entity—an almost 40-year evolution of artist and muse. In fact, Pain & Glory unabashedly invites that very train of thought, serving as a winkingly self-referential, elegantly metafictional reminiscence on life in the film industry.

When Almodóvar and Banderas started out, they lived in a campy, melodramatic world of comic anarchy filled with drag queens and nuns and endless op art wall treatments. But
Pain & Glory is a serious drama. It is the reflexive, career-capping work of mature artists and belongs to a genre generally reserved for those either retiring or dying. Almodóvar has always had a certain affinity for the ribald, sybaritic circus tent world of Italian master Federico Fellini. And if Almodóvar were ever to pull a deeply personal, painfully confessional, arguably autobiographical 8 1/2 out of his sleeve, it’s Pain & Glory.

As with Fellini’s male muse Marcello Mastroianni in
8 1/2, Banderas plays a thinly disguised version of his writer-director pal. Madrid-based filmmaker Salvador Mallo (Banderas) had a soaring career in the Spanish film industry starting in the early ’80s. But now creeping into his 60s, he feels like he’s done with it all. He hasn’t written or directed a film in years. He can’t stand parties or crowds anymore. He spends most of his time obsessing over his various physical and mental illnesses (everything from crippling back pain to migraine headaches to panic attacks)—all of which serve ample excuse (in his mind, anyway) as to why he can’t be a filmmaker anymore. Mostly, though, he just seems tired.

Thirty years have passed since Salvador directed his magnum opus, a dark romantic drama called
Sabor. He fought violenty with the film’s star, Alberto Crespo (TV actor Asier Etxeandia), mostly over the direction the main character took. (Although Alberto’s nonstop heroin use factored into the equation as well.) The Madrid Cinematheque recently completed a restoration of the film. Looking back on it after so many years, Salvador finds himself softening to his former leading man. When the Cinematheque requests the director and the actor host a screening of the film, Salvador swallows his pride and goes looking for his long-lost friend.

What he finds is a still formidable, out-of-work actor who has managed to control his drug abuse for three decades. His will weakened by a combination of illness, ennui and nostalgia, Salvador asks Alberto for a dose of heroin. He welcomes the numbing sensation and quickly uses the coming film screening as an excuse to hang out with Alberto and his ready supply of drugs. It seems like an extreme solution for our protagonist, but
Pain & Glory isn’t about drug addiction. It’s mostly about finding ways to avoid the thing that you’re supposed to be doing. And heroin gives Salvador a great excuse for ignoring his emotional problems as much as his physical ones.

While hanging out and doing drugs, Alberto finds a confessional work of “autofiction” on Salvador’s computer. It’s not a screenplay, but it would serve as the perfect basis for a one-man show. Alberto pleads for the opportunity to perform it. Salvador acquiesces, but begs off directing it or seeing it or offering any direct advice. The “play” is a flashback to an earlier time when Salvador fell in love with the lead actor in his first film. Is the tragic narrative true or not? Is it drawn directly from Almodóvar’s own life and experience? Herein lies the tricky nature of
Pain & Glory’s “autofiction” label.

As we explore the current life of our man Salvador and are offered possible glimpses into his cinematic past courtesy of his play,
Pain & Glory also treats us to extended flashbacks of Salvador’s youth. Like its inspiration, 8 1/2, Pain & Glory sends its hero on a free-floating reminiscence of his personal history. Salvador grew up a smart but painfully poor kid (played by the precocious Asier Flores), who was looked after mostly by his adoring mother (Penélope Cruz, another longtime collaborator/muse of Almodóvar’s). So is Salvador’s work all autobiographical? Is Almodóvar’s?

In the end, of course, it doesn’t matter. What matters is the emotional impact of the story at hand. And rarely has Almodóvar’s gentle humanism been so self-evident. The filmmaker’s work has always had a strong compassion for gay and lesbian characters (not to mention an affinity for strong female leads). But Salvador’s sexuality is mostly background information. (It’s barely mentioned until about halfway through the film.) The orientation is less important than the way in which relationships played out over the course of Salvador’s life. And his life wasn’t exactly the lusty bacchanal of directorman Guideo Anselmi in
8 1/2.

Almodóvar strips away nearly all of his trademark melodrama here. But there are two directions melodrama can take. There’s the sensationalized sentiment, designed to appeal strongly to audience emotions. That’s certainly stripped thinner here than in other Almodóvar films. But there’s also the sort of melodrama that relies on uncontrollable outside forces to drive a story. Sneakily, Almodóvar slips in a number of heavily coincidental incidences, goading his story forward in a godlike manner. Happily, these moments feel less manipulative on the part of the filmmaker and more like pleasant rewards to people we’ve come to love for all their faults and frailties. They implant the subtle hope that the universe isn’t as cold, cruel and random as it might seem.

Though some viewers may miss the queer anarchy of Almodóvar’s earlier work,
Pain & Glory is a beautifully composed and smartly assembled work of art. Even the film’s childhood flashbacks serve a lovely narrative purpose, tying the entire package together in the film’s pitch-perfect coda. Inward-looking and overwhelmingly elegiac in nature, Almodóvar’s latest career capper still manages to feel more like a life-affirming wake than a glum funeral—offering at least as much glory as pain.
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