An ode to Spanish filmmaker Pedro Almodóvar’s most recent masterpiece, Pain and Glory. One of the gifted director’s most mesmerizing and personal works to date…
by: Michael Shields
Pain and Glory, the twenty-first feature film by famed Spanish filmmaker Pedro Almodóvar, may be his greatest achievement yet. The reason: the insertion of so much of himself and his real life story into the narrative of the film. Fashioning the film as a personal and honest work of art, Almodóvar bills Pain and Glory as a semi-autobiographical take on his life where longtime collaborator Antonio Banderas plays a Spanish director looking back on his successful career and trying to make sense of it all. While the parallels one can draw between the real life and on-screen director are many (right down to the hairstyle), Banderas’ character, Salvador Mallo, has his best work well behind him, while Pain and Glory makes it clear that this surely isn’t the case for Almodóvar. While Salvador’s storyline finds him observing his greatest creation with the 30th anniversary screening of his ’80s hit Sabor (Taste), Almodóvar might just have crafted his.
Because Almodóvar’s output is persistently diverse and prolific, cinephiles have become accustomed to expect the unexpected from the gifted director. From the captivatingly shocking (The Skin I Live In), to the campy (Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown), to the genuinely affecting and beautiful (Volver), Almodóvar has proved there isn’t any brand of story he isn’t capable of bringing to life. But finding a film of his that is as vulnerable and self-reflecting as Pain and Glory isn’t just a delightful surprise, but refreshingly pleasing and telling of a filmmaker at a point in his life when he is ready to focus the lens inward, even more so than he did in 1987’s Law of Desire and 2004’s Bad Education. Invoking flashbacks, the most notable of which feature his mother played by Penélope Cruz, Pain and Glory revisits Almodóvar’s days at religious boarding school where he was poised to become a priest, and walks us into his modest upbringing rife with struggle that did nothing to mute his unflappable spirit and phenomenal imagination. While Pain and Glory isn’t note for note the song of Almodóvar’s life, it does allow his lifelong fans to share in the experience of the music, and awe in the painting of a portrait of the artist as a young man.
Pain and Glory doesn’t only feature a veteran director still pulsating at the top of his game, but also a seasoned actor in Banderas who conjures forth one of the most affecting and weighty performances of his career. Banderas, who was named best actor at the Cannes Film Festival for the role and received an Academy Award nomination, plays his character subdued at times, but contemplative. Allowing his eyes to tell the story of his pain, delight, or intrigue, Banderas is at all times broken, warm, mysterious, relatable, and funny. He often faces his late-life crisis with reckless abandonment (heroin is in play), and other times with an confident thoughtfulness. Salvador’s existential breakdown isn’t simply demanding and full of insight, but fun, and that is all due to Banderas’ stunning performance.
In the throes of taking in Almodóvar latest masterpiece, I was whisked into deep thought time and again. In contemplation of Salvador ruminating about learning about the anatomy and inner workings of the human body due to his beginning to fail, I couldn’t help but consider my own mortality and the eventual doctor visits and ailments that I too will have to endure. As Salvador looks back on his career, and revisits relationships he forged along the journey of his life, I began to wonder if I will feel pride, or even a measure of satisfaction, in the work I have done, and if I will regret having squandered and mishandled personal connections along the way. And as Salvador considered his childhood, and how it shaped him, I pondered my own, and observed how my fledgling experience made me who I am. And even more so, I wondered if I have been able to let go of the traumas of youth that have haunted me, so I can move forward and truly live.
Pain and Glory struck a chord with me, and this is due to the fact it is a truly human film. One that contemplates the human experience in a delightful, deep, and wholly entertaining way. It celebrates life by taking a hard, honest look at the trying but rewarding journey it can be. While all the staples of an Almodóvar classic are still intact — from the striking color schemes to the enticing, meticulous set design to the fully developed characters — Pain and Glory is a unique child of his, with an intimate touch that feels like it allows his most ardent fans a secret glimpse into his soul and spirit, and in that place resides so much magic.