“Pain and Glory” is a testament to Almodovar’s art – a personal, existential tale based on loose memoirs, people and places.
When acclaimed directors reach a certain age, they’re often tempted to become more sentimental and reflective in their last films. It’s a peril which often frustrates because talking about oneself can turn into self-loathing or, in a worst case, a strenuous exercise at playing an old know-it-all. And sometimes, those wise thoughts feel either shallow or outdated.
This year especially favours directors who find reconciliation in such self-portraits. We’ve seen Quentin Tarantino get all emotional in “Once Upon A Time… In Hollywood”, along with Abel Ferrara and his controversial “Tommaso”.
The next in this line is Pedro Almodovar’s “Pain and Glory”.
The main character here’s played by Antonio Banderas – grey-haired and dried-out of energy, the actor’s an alter ego of Almodovar called Salvador. He is also a director, successful thanks to films he crafted years ago. Now, struck by a fine list of less serious afflictions, Salvador backed out from film festivals and public speeches.
The lethargy state changes when he’s invited to attend a special screening of his old movie, along with an actor whom Salvador stopped talking to 30 years ago. Their reunion causes an avalanche of retrospectives, mostly oscillating around Salvador’s childhood – how living with his mother (episode played by Penelope Cruz) forged his future, moving to a cave flat and growing up in a poor region of Spain. Salvador brings back thoughts about his former lover and other significant milestones of his.
Those trips to the past, according to Pedro Almodovar, become dangerous to Salvador. Withdrawn and lacking zeal, the artist finds peace in the quiet, whitened walls of his childhood home, or in the arms of his first love he conjures in the tranquillised mind. Paradoxically, the more he dwells onto what once was, the more he leaves the presence behind.
Almodovar points here to the sacrifices and physical burden that cinema demands from its creator. One could see “Pain and Glory” as an ode to the aching of art. Salvador suffers for he’s no longer able to work on set. There is a hole in this man’s life, left after years of artistic wasteland, and the last resort seems to be going back to times and people that infused him with creativity.
But “Pain and Glory” is not a wailing sound of “how it used to be”. Almodovar, contrary to many other artists who see the process of ageing depressing, views it as a step in creation – a natural sequence of life, which an artist needs to embrace.
That’s where Spaniard’s maturity comes to speak. Almodovar isn’t afraid to admit he’s getting old too, and viewing Salvador’s struggles means tackling his own demons. This therapy is cathartic for the audience as well. Finding comfort in the less scary image of losing youthful vitality is key to keeping oneself happy.
From that self-realisation comes the deeper thought of “Pain and Glory” – its wisdom about cherishing past and presence on equal rights, which is beautifully laid out by the captivating role of Antonio Banderas. The long-time collaborator of Almodovar constructs Salvador from subtleties – it’s not a typical hurricane of emotions that Almodovar got us used to. Instead, it’s a protagonist who wishes for both mercy and admiration from his audience. Salvador crawls deep into the shadows out of fear against grabbing life in his hands once more.
Some might say that Almodovar’s changed. It’s true by all means. When compared to “Vicky Cristina Barcelona”, “Volver” or even his last title “Julieta”, “Pain and Glory” beats in its own rhythm that’s less frantic and emotional. But that allows it to ooze confidence where most fail – it’s reassuring that life isn’t all that bad when your whole body seems to be saying you’re done. You just gotta fight.
Pain and Glory (2019)
Dir. Pedro Almodovar
Hate Grade: 2,5/10