“Pain and Glory” (“Dolor y Gloria”)
Almodovar fans have largely assumed that that the director’s latest film is semi-autobiographical; it is the story of an openly gay filmmaker as he reminisces on his childhood and his prior filmography. Parallels began and end with those basic facts that we all know about Almodovar and this film is is more of an interrogation as to why he continues to look for inspiration to make films, as opposed to an autobiographical journey through his own past. Here is an autobiography that is not an autobiography.
Antonio Banderas is Salvador Mallo, the character tjay is not an extension of Almodovar but more of an alternate reality version; one whose passion to make films has dulled with age, and chooses to re-examine his history in order to find the creative spark once again. This is not the swan song that some previously imagined. Rather, it is the close of one chapter and the opening of another; a film about filmmaking without the inherently pretentious nature of that premise to reveal the emotional motivations that inspire people to share their stories.
It seems that Salvador Mallo has grown out of love with filmmaking, but after a chance to present a restored version of one of his classic films comes about, he chooses to meet his former star Alberto (Asier Exteandia) with whom he has not spoken to for 30 years. Alberto is now a heroin addict, an addiction that Salvador picks up as they resume a creative partnership, with the drugs fueling Salvador’s own memories of the past; from growing up in a converted cave alongside his mother (Penelope Cruz) in the 60’s to remembering his first love in the early 80’s, to the moments when he first found himself in love with and enraptured by the power of cinema. This is a meta textual examination of a filmmaker crafting his most ambitious project to date. Almodovar is interested in exploring the human factors that would inspire somebody to tell a story in the first place. We never see a single frame from any of Salvador’s films, just the rolling end credits at the screening of the restored film, and we only experience his work via a monologue performed by Alberto, who plans to use Salvador’s work to find the inspiration to act again. At its core, this is a film about the innate emotional response we have to those memories that lead some people to create, and the personal feelings others attach to those films that inspire them to create something of their own.
“Pain and Glory” is Almodovar’s attempt to appreciate the quirks he previously dismissed when looking upon them for the first time in years. Here is the director falling in love with film again by using his work of old to find the inspiration to create something anew.
The personal tales from Salvador’s history, such as his ill-fated relationship with a bisexual man for whom he was the only male lover, are all moving, Almodovar incorporates those stories in a way that shows how they’ve been adapted into Salvador’s work, and the subtle ways in which the true tales differentiate from the stories they inspired. This film is remarkable in how it articulates the inner mind of a creative in a way anybody can respond to. With Almodovar, the creative process is emotionally involving.
Almodovar is approaching his 70th birthday with his love of moviemaking undiluted. “Pain and Glory” is filled with all the things we love about him: the importance of women (especially his mother), shameless nostalgia and celebration of sexuality are all here and in Almodovar’s overstated way, the film is wonderful to look at. But it’s unlikely to be remembered with any great fondness by all but Almodovar diehards because its self-regarding inwardness suggests that he’s struggling, as is Salvador, his hero, to find something new to say.
Alberto wastes no time in introducing Salvador to the pleasures of smoking heroin and this comes as a relief to Salvador, a pill slave whose body is racked by physical issues that suggest that he’s extracting full value from his health policy and who indeed, following a back operation, carries himself like someone 10 years older than he is.
Upon discovering a text that Salvador has written about his past, Alberto insists on performing it as a monologue in a small Madrid theater. Thus the two men are able to revive in one another their failing creative impulses. Sitting in the audience is Argentinian Federico (Leonardo Sbaraglia), who had an affair with Salvador many years before and who now shows up on Salvador’s doorstep to help deliver the film’s most sublime scene, a wonderfully played, heartfelt and beautifully written exchange between two late middle-aged men who only now, years later, are able to confess the desire that has remained buried within them. The scene is intense and ends with Salvador smiling for the first and last time, and rightly so.
Salvador’s thoughts regularly go to the past, and the film is more engaging in its flashbacks than in its present-day despite the fact that by some bizarre psychological kink, all of Salvador’s memories are filtered through the films of Almodovar. When Salvador was young, money was tight, and his mother Jacinta (Penelope Cruz) is obliged to raise him in a striking rural house/cave. The young Salvador goes on to be a choirboy, with all that this implies and plays out in the older Salvador’s throat problems. It is in this house that the young Salvador feels his sexual awakening as he watches beautifully muscled builder Eduardo (Cesar Vicente) dry himself down.
Almodovar’s world view dovetails entirely with his work-view. Little space is left for the revealing, the fresh or the daring and the film that is beautifully crafted is also dangerously comfortable, so that strangely enough, what’s being said to be the director’s most personal effort to date comes across as an oddly detached and impersonal exercise but in great style.
Cultural references to the movies and to literature are everywhere including from Almodovar’s own work, in what must be one of the most shamelessly self-referential movies ever made. “Pain and Glory” probably requires several viewings, so gorgeous is its attention to detail. Almodovar is the best at setting up patterns of echoing colors through scenes and down the years. Salvador’s apartment is a beautiful if overwhelming clutter of brightly hued culture and probably a detailed recreation of Almodovar’s own.
The childhood scenes are the beautifully staged stuff of nostalgic fantasy, so that viewers don’t actually get to feel much of the post-Spanish Civil War poverty they’re supposedly witnessing. The visual geometrics of each scene are composed with utmost care, and sometimes we see overwrought little close-ups in rich monochromes that are there for their beauty alone.
Performances are excellent all around but there is a problem with this protagonist, which is that Almodovar seems to be much fonder of the work he’s made than of the man he’s become. The young Salvador generously tries to teach Eduardo how to write, but for the world-weary older Salvador, other people seem to exist simply as a means to boost his ego and his art. Salvador’s self-centeredness makes it hard to engage with him dramatically, particularly since there’s very little within the film ] to suggest that he merits all this tortured-genius treatment.
In lesser hands this could have become pretentious and incestuous but as it is, it is riveting and emotionally engaging in a way that few contemporary directors could achieve. It has a universal message about how we come to terms with the facing the end of life and failing faculties as well as fears of the unknown.