The Exquisite Pain of Pedro Almodovar

Almodovar's ‘Pain and Glory’ is much more than a cinematic self-portrait

Antonio Banderas in Almodovar's "Pain and Glory."
Sony Pictures Releasing Internat

The easiest way to cope with “Pain and Glory,” the new film by the Spanish director Pedro Almodovar is to treat it primarily as a portrait of its maker. That approach provides immediate gratification to viewers, because it seems to offer an intimate look into the life and world of a director who made the leap from the margins of filmmaking to the forefront of the cinematic arena, and whose very name became a brand.

There are similarities between Almodovar and Salvador Mallo, a film director who is the protagonist of the new film. But the very fact that Mallo is played by Antonio Banderas, who became an international star following his performances in Almodovar’s early films, and is now ostensibly playing the director who catapulted him into stardom, is enough to show that if “Pain and Glory” is a self-portrait, it is an indirect and even subverted one, in which the “self” clashes with the other who is representing it.

Even more than pain, the paramount feeling that arises from Almodovar’s new film is regret, and how the attempt to come to terms with it may involve commanding the psyche to alleviate the body’s afflictions and allow creativity to emanate from it once more. Mallo suffers from diverse bodily afflictions – they are detailed for us graphically on the screen – which have paralyzed his cinematic work for years.

Life, he declares, is meaningless if he cannot make films, and that remains the case until a formative event rekindles in him the passion to find meaning in his life. The event, which acts as the movie’s lever, is an announcement by the Madrid Cinematheque that it will screen a restored version of his best-known film, “Sabor” (“Taste” – a significant word in the history of Almodovar’s oeuvre and in the response to it), and he is asked to be present at the screening and answer questions from the audience.

Mallo feels alienated from “Taste,” which he made 30 years earlier, because of the poor relations he had with the film’s star, Alberto Crespo, who, as the director sees it, played the role in a way contrary to his demands.

After a rupture of three decades, Mallo decides to renew contact with Crespo (Asier Etxeandia) and get him to take part in the screening. He arrives without prior announcement at Crespo’s house, and the latter, after a slight hesitation, invites him in. During their meeting Mallo tries heroin for the first time in his life and becomes addicted to it immediately. “Pain and Glory” is not about addiction. The heroin carries primarily a symbolic meaning, as its effect remains lodged in the mind even after rehab, and as such it connects primarily to the flood of memories that well up in Mallo and propel the film from its present into the past and back.

“Pain and Glory” begins with an idyllic depiction of Mallo’s mother (Penelope Cruz) laundering clothes in the river that runs next to the village in which the family lives, then hanging the clothes to dry on the bushes on the riverbank, as she and her friends, who are also doing the laundry, sing joyfully. This scene conveys the essence of memory itself, which is elusive and even wily.

Penelope Cruz (left) in “Pain and Glory.”
Sony Pictures Releasing Internat

When Mallo is nine (he is played at that age by Asier Flores) the hardscrabble family, in which the mother is the dominant figure, moves to a cave in the Paterna region, a place where the ceiling is exposed and covered with bars. Little Salvador is a choirboy in the local church – Almodovar only hints that Mallo underwent abuse there – and it’s here that the boy’s attraction to men appears for the first time, even if he himself is not fully conscious of it, when he sees a good-looking man (Cesar Vicente) who is working next to the cave and also showers there, reveling in Salvador’s admiring gaze.

The past is present in “Pain and Glory” concretely within the traditional framework of the cinematic flashback, but above all, the past is embedded in the film’s present. All of Almodovar’s other films, which, even if they shifted between present and past – like “Julieta,” his previous film – bore a tight narrative structure. In contrast, the structure of “Pain and Glory,” though it unfolds within an orderly narrative, is far more ragged. This lends the film an episodic essence, which stems from Mallo’s gaze at his past and the past’s impingement in his present.

Episodic structure

The loveliest episode in the film depicts Mallo’s meeting, after a separation of many years, with Federico (Leonardo Sbaraglia), who was the love of his life, and vice versa. Federico moved to Argentina and is back in Madrid for the first time since leaving. In the whole of Almodovar’s oeuvre, I don’t recall as gentle a scene as this encounter, which emerges into the film’s present from the past, between two former lovers who were young and have since matured and are now meeting again in order to part once more.

Certain elements in “Pain and Glory” link it to Almodovar’s previous films, but here, what is similar clashes with what is different, expressed, among other ways, by the film’s structure. The essentially episodic structure is not uniform but all the parts are tied to the central theme, which is the connection between memory, pain, regret and artistic creation.

In the course of the film we will also meet Mallo’s mother in her old age, close to death, played now by Julieta Serrano. Almodovar makes no effort to persuade us that Penelope Cruz has become Julieta Serrano in her old age. These are two different actresses playing the same character, and the second one represents the change in the way we remember our parents, particularly our mothers, at every stage of our lives. (Another Spanish director, Luis Bunuel, used a similar strategy in his last film, “That Obscure Object of Desire,” from 1977. Two separate actresses played the protagonist’s object of passion, but in that case the duality represented the manner of the male gaze at women and cast a surrealistic aura over the film, which is completely absent in “Pain and Glory.”)

Since the beginning of the 1980s, Almodovar has been the most sophisticated maker of melodramas working today. “Pain and Glory” contains melodramatic elements, of course, but for the first time the melodramatic seems to be repressed into the film, itself almost as a memory of the work of its director.

Despite reservations about a film whose whole sometimes seems better than its parts, “Pain and Glory” is a lovely, moving and compelling work, like every Almodovar picture. It contains several magnificent scenes and moments, thrilling in visual design and cinematography. The film’s elusiveness, which corresponds with the elusiveness of memory, is reflected as well in the connection the title suggests between pain and glory – the latter being the most enigmatic concept in the film.

In this context it is impossible not to salute the contribution of Antonio Banderas’ performance in forging the heft of “Pain and Glory.” In the past I was more impressed by Banderas’ captivating presence than by his skill as an actor, with the exception of his performances in Almodovar’s early films, “Law of Desire,” “Matador” and others.

Possibly the actor’s work with lesser directors than Almodovar did not allow his ability to manifest itself. In “Pain and Glory” it’s the very opposite. Not only is this Banderas’ career-best performance, it is a masterly one for which he deserves glory (he indeed won the best actor award at Cannes this year). Perhaps getting older suits him. Is Almodovar suited for it? We’ll find out in his coming films: “Pain and Glory” would seem to be navigating toward a new chapter in the director’s rich and complex work.