Pain & Glory (2019)

Antonio Banderas excels as a version of the director in Almodóvar’s Pain & Glory

Director: Pedro Almodóvar

Cast: Antonio Banderas (Salvador Mallo), Penélope Cruz (Jacinta Mallo), Nora Nacas (Mercedes), Asier Etxeandia (Alberto Crespo), Leonardo Sbaraglia (Federico), César Vicente (Eduardo), Cecilia Roth (Zulema), Julieta Serrano (Older Jacinta Mallo), Raúl Arévalo (Salvador’s father)

Every artist in time reflects on his roots, and many explore these reflections in their medium of choice. The master of this in the world of cinema was Fellini, and any film that riffs upon the biography of auteur directors is destined to be described as Fellini-esque. That’s an appropriate title for Pedro Almodóvar’s Pain & Glory, which explores Almodóvar’s childhood spiced with a fictionalised version of himself in the present day, struggling with lack of drive and against a series of crippling illnesses. It makes for a gently structured, quietly moving picture shot with a classic simplicity but filled with genuine emotional feeling.

Salvador Mallo (Antonio Banderas) is our Almodóvar substitute, his body falling apart from a range of illnesses and diseases that have prevented him from directing a film for years. Asked to present a screening of a classic film of his from almost thirty years ago, he contacts the lead actor of the film Alberto Crespo (Asier Etxeandia) who he has not spoken to since making the film. The two quickly re-bond – helped by Mallo’s curiosity about trying the heroin of which Crespo is a habitual user. Mallo finds the drugs not only help to ease his pain, but also bring back a flood of memories about growing up with his mother Jacinta (Penélope Cruz) as a poor peasant boy, educated in a convent school and teaching a young labourer Eduardo (César Vicente) to read and write.

Almodóvar is best known for a electric, dynamically assembled films but he is also a patient and intelligent craftsman and sensitive director with an eye for pace, and Pain & Glory is a far more meditative piece, as befitting the sense that both Almodóvar and Mallo are reflecting on their entire lives. The general structure fits in to a well-worn template of such films, with Mallo dealing with dissatisfaction and frustration in the present day but, through memories, finding a sense of peace and an ability to move on and reconnect with his life and work. But familiar as it is, it is a template that works exceptionally well – and I felt a real sadness and frustration that Mallo is drawn towards the superficial, short-term, comfort that drugs bring him when he is unable to write and direct films.

While I find some of the films attitudes towards drugs a little unsettling (Crespo seems willing to kick them at will, which I find rather hard to believe and even a bit irresponsible), it does show that this is a false nirvana for Mallo and that the more time he spends (as he eventually recognises) wallowing in this rather than finding avenues for artistic creation, is time wasted. Crespo (very well played by Asier Etxeandia, despite the character being a bit of a cliché) may well be a great actor – his performance of a Mallo short story memoir carries real emotional weight – but he is a lightweight human being, the very opposite of the far more deeper feeling (and thinking) Mallo. 

It’s that exploration of Mallo’s personality, art and how the two relate to his memories of his past that really powers the movie. Mallo is of course played by Almodóvar’s muse Antonio Banderas – and this might well be the greatest performance of Banderas’ career. I’m sure he has never been as sensitive, gentle, soft, tender and vulnerable as is here. Looking thinner and more delicate than ever before, Banderas keeps emotion carefully in check but playing constantly in the eyes. He’s fabulous, a wonderfully humane and beautiful performance.

Matching this quality, the sequences that really kick into gear in the modern storyline are those that carry real emotional meaning for Mallo/Almodóvar. The first is a meeting between Mallo and former lover Federico (Leonardo Sbaraglia, quite excellent – tender, heartbreaking and real) , which is an intensely personal, gently played, sad but also affectionate and hopeful conversation about a relationship loved and lost, which belongs in the past but which can bring a certain contentment in the future. It’s also a scene that demonstrates how the past sometimes stays better in the past, and that quieter reflections on lost relationships can be better and richer than restarting them. 

This also mixes in well with Mallo’s yearning to be free to continue his creative output, unburdened by disease and illness, mixed with a loving guilt for his mother who sacrificed so much to give him chances in life and whom he feels he failed in her final years (despite spending them caring for her in his home). The later sequences showing Mallo looking after his mother (a wonderful performance by Julieta Serrano) hum with an intimacy and emotional honesty that work all the better for the film’s careful interweaving of past and present.

Extended flashbacks – driven perhaps by Mallo’s exploration of his past fuelled by drugs – chronicle his childhood with his mother, marvellously played by Penélope Cruz, Almodóvar’s other muse. Cruz’s maternal, caring but strong-willed embodiment of Mallo’s mother is exquisite, from singing while washing laundry at the lake to sadly encouraging her son to believe convent school is his best chance of a full education. It’s clear that Mallo’s mother believes she knows what is best for her son – and, as a late sting shows, sometimes mean she takes drastic decisions without her son’s knowledge. The flashbacks cover everything from Mallo’s education to his first infatuation (and realisation of his sexuality) with a young married labourer who he teaches to read and write.

Pain & Glory explores all these memories with a touching intimacy but also a clear-eyed reality, and Almodóvar’s honesty in these scenes and with his own feelings about his past and how it has powered his art have a real emotional force to them. With superb performances throughout the cast, the film is a testament to the restraint and careful lack of flash, of a director willing to explore his life without flash or bangs. At one point Mallo opines “a great actor is not the one who cried, but the one who knows how to contain the tears”. It could be a strapline for the whole movie.

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