Pain and Glory
Pedro Almodóvar’s latest film, the intriguingly titled Pain and Glory, finds the internationally adored Spaniard at his most self-reflective and personal, using the central character of Salvador, a world weary film director played to spellbinding effect by Antonio Banderas, to weave together a series of encounters with old friends and memories of childhood experiences into a deeply moving tale that touches on the struggles and joys of reconciling with the realities of one’s past.
It is clear right away that this film is, in large part, a memoir for Almódovar. This can primarily be seen in the physical similarities between Salvador and Almodóvar, emphasised through Banderas’ donning of the director’s clothes for the role and the setting of interior shots within Almódovar’s actual flat.
But the autobiographical origins of the project are even more obvious within the actual craft of the film, the sheer warmth and clarity of the storytelling, the powerfully constructed flashbacks to Salvador’s childhood, and the palpable nostalgia that is injected into every frame. In a recent interview, Almadóvar stated that he would never be interested in making a documentary and emphasised that the film is a fictional piece, but then admitted that “I’m trying to convince myself I’m talking about a character… But deep down I know I’m talking about myself… I can no longer hide behind Salvador Mallo.”
And this breaking down of the barrier between fiction and reality is something we witness first hand within the film, as we see the rather haggard Salvador increasingly delving into his past and striking up contact with various figures who have previously played a pivotal role in shaping his life. Banderas is in blistering form as the director who mourns his now lengthy departure from filming and who, subsequently, feels he has lost part of his identity, so bound up was he in his work and the profoundly expressive power of art.
This feeling of loss and alienation is evoked perfectly through Antxón Gómez’s production design, Salvador’s flat filled with so many modern art pieces and stylish decor features that he increasingly looks like a stranger in his home, stranded in his damaged body and his drawn out creative drought.
This isn’t to say however that the film is all no pain and no glory. There is a huge amount of humour and romanticism within the proceedings, largely thanks to the stellar work of Banderas (who took home the Best Actor award at Cannes for his performance) and the delicate charm that he weaves into Salvador’s mannerisms and interactions.
Excellent supporting performances from Asier Etxeandia as Alberto Crespo, the star of one of Salvador’s past films, and Leonardo Sbaraglia as old flame Federico are also pivotal to the film’s quest for the silver lining that can be found in revisiting the past, with the sequence between Salvador and Federico a particularly touching and heart warming highlight.
But it is Pénelope Cruz who really steals the show as Salvador’s mother Jacinta in the sequences about his childhood, delivering a wonderful performance as the doting mother who takes pride in her son’s achievements while trying to align him with her own expectations for his future. Cruz is also instrumental in the film’s fantastic opening sequence, where we see the women of Salvador’s childhood sing a wonderful version of Lola Flores’ “A Tu Vera,” assisted by a brief but scene-stealing cameo from flamenco singer Rosalía.
Cruz’s performance is made all the more special when Almodóvar later revisits Jacinta in her senior years, played now by Julieta Serrano, and it is here that the film feels most intimate and tender, as we see how Jacinta’s expectations for Salvador has shaped both of them in a quietly devastating and heart-breaking way.
Going into Pain and Glory, I was worried about what I would get out of it. As someone who knows relatively little about Almodóvar’s filmography (shame on me, efforts will be made to correct this), would the film’s emotive power be too limited to those with an expansive knowledge of the director’s past films?
So I was delighted to find that the film is a powerfully moving experience for all, regardless of your prior experience with his work. For this is ultimately a story that holds a universal power, one that explores the importance of finding solace in one’s past. Salvador’s stitching together of his experiences, whether repressed or often revisited, makes for a fascinating patchwork of memories that ultimately forms a beautiful and deeply emotional portrait of a wild and eventful life characterised by many triumphs and many tribulations.