Film

Pedro Almodóvar's 'Pain and Glory' and the Healing Power of Art

Antonio Banderas as Salvador Mallo in Pain & Glory (2019) (IMDB)

Veteran Spanish director Pedro Almodóvar's pointedly autobiographical film, Pain and Glory, reflects on the power of art in shaping a life and legacy.

Pain & Glory
Pedro Almodóvar

Sony Classics

4 October 2019 (US)

Other

As artists age, there's an inevitable reckoning to be had with their legacies. But in a culture that treats art-making like an endless competition, the twilight years of a creator's career are too often spent contextualizing their work amongst the work of others, rather than considering their powers as a singular artist. Admittedly, in the case of the filmmaker Pedro Almodóvar, it's hard not to consider the grander scheme of things. He's been a long-time cultural legend in his native Spain, but the rest of the world has been slower to appreciate the zany artistry of his films.

Older now, Almodóvar is doing some reflecting of his own. Pain and Glory (Dolor y gloria), the director's 21st film, is a pointedly autobiographical one, and the story is right there iN the title — in a long, eventful life like his, there are plenty of highs and lows. Almodovar's stand-in here is Salvador Mallo (Antonio Banderas), a middle-aged film director with too many physical ailments to count. In Salvador's mind, the best years of his career are behind him, and his self-alienation and depression have been preventing him from doing the work he loves.

Thankfully, it's not hard to find sympathy for Salvador's situation, if only because his temporary stasis hasn't quite hardened into the bitterness we might expect from such a storyline. Rather than an air of superiority, however, Salvador's anhedonia stems more from insecurity and loneliness. He's convinced himself that, without the physical health of his younger years, the demands of filmmaking are more than he can handle.

Almodóvar treats Salvador tenderly, but he doesn't coddle him. The film itself, juxtaposed with its central character's sadness, is bright and lively, filled with the vibrant colors and quick wit of Almodóvar's earlier efforts. This setup, somewhat contradictory, presents a world that continues to turn despite one artist's misery. It goes on, awaiting his return to the land of the living.

Asier Etxeandia as Alberto Crespo (IMDB)

Eventually, Salvador does take steps in the right direction, however tentative. As one of his early films is re-released for contemporary audiences, he calls on the film's star, Alberto Crespo (Asier Etxeandia), to join him for a Q&A. Although the pair haven't spoken in 30 years, Alberto agrees to work with him, and the two spend the next few weeks brainstorming and smoking heroin.

Salvador, desperate for an escape, loses himself in drugged-out memories: Washing clothes with his mother (Penelope Cruz); moving to a strange new village with his family and teaching an illiterate neighbor how to read and write. The flashbacks are brilliant, not only as vivid plot points, but as thematic developments. Young Salvador is spirited and artistically prodigious, and it throws his present-day midlife crisis into sharp relief.

It is, ultimately, by living life and dealing with the consequences of his actions (and the natural consequences of old age) that Salvador begins to put himself back together. The frequent flashbacks give Pain and Glory's narrative a stitched-together quality, but the script is well balanced. Salvador's present-day journey is really quite a simple one, but it's his memories that give the film its narrative heft.

It's unclear to what extent Almodóvar is representing himself, but it's heartening to see the solipsism of autofiction channeled not into arrogance, but cathartic honesty. Salvador may be dejected and slightly angry, but Pain and Glory holds very little animosity for the world at large. Instead, love shines through — love for art, for friendships, and for family.

Antonio Banderas as Salvador Mallo and Julieta Serrano as Jacinta (IMDB)

Even the most metatextual elements, including a dramatic monologue in which Alberto plays Salvador's rueful ex-lover, veer toward poignance rather than pretentiousness. One downside to autofiction is that a certain audience will always have a baseline distaste for its excavations of real-life situations, and going into Pain and Glory one might understandably expect the tiresome protestations of an aging artist feeling sorry for himself. But the film's climactic moments, rooted in forgiveness and vulnerability, forego personal vindication for a much wider celebration of flawed personhood.

Banderas, playing Salvador, is wonderfully fragile, and his wallowing comes off as both stubborn and self-protective. It's an entirely new role for an actor known primarily in Hollywood for inhabiting the sexy Latino archetype, but Salvador isn't without his charms and flirtations. Etxeandia, in a comic role that doubles as the film's most overt expression of regret and vulnerability, is perhaps even more obviously likeable. But the most valuable player has to be Almodóvar's veteran eye for detail, both as writer and director. Above all, Pain and Glory is a tender film, convinced in the power of storytelling to heal and reconcile.

The most obvious touchstone for Almodovar here is Fellini's 8 ½, but it's just as instructive to consider how the two films differ. Fellini's masterpiece is far more baroque, relying on a maximalist and highly symbolic aesthetic to depict the artistic process. Pain and Glory, rooted in emotional realism, is more concerned with the filmmaker's long-term relationship with art in general. It may be tempting to focus on the specifics of how Salvador resembles Almodovar, but the film doesn't necessarily beckon us to intellectualize disparate elements into one solid truth. Instead, fictional or not, Pain and Glory is a celebration of art, not just as a form of entertainment or provocation, but as lifeblood.

8
Music


Books


Film


Recent
Music

The Top 20 Punk Protest Songs for July 4th

As punk music history verifies, American citizenry are not all shiny, happy people. These 20 songs reflect the other side of patriotism -- free speech brandished by the brave and uncouth.

Books

90 Years on 'Olivia' Remains a Classic of Lesbian Literature

It's good that we have our happy LGBTQ stories today, but it's also important to appreciate and understand the daunting depths of feeling that a love repressed can produce. In Dorothy Strachey's case, it produced the masterful Olivia.

Music

Indie Rocker Alpha Cat Presents 'Live at Vox Pop' (album stream)

A raw live set from Brooklyn in the summer of 2005 found Alpha Cat returning to the stage after personal tumult. Sales benefit organizations seeking to end discrimination toward those seeking help with mental health issues.

Love in the Time of Coronavirus

‘The Avengers’ Offer a Lesson for Our Time of COVID-19

Whereas the heroes in Avengers: Endgame stew for five years, our grief has barely taken us to the after-credit sequence. Someone page Captain Marvel, please.

Music

Between the Grooves of Nirvana's 'Nevermind'

Our writers undertake a track-by-track analysis of the most celebrated album of the 1990s: Nirvana's Nevermind. From the surprise hit that brought grunge to the masses, to the hidden cacophonous noise-fest that may not even be on your copy of the record, it's all here.

Music

Deeper Graves Arrives via 'Open Roads' (album stream)

Chrome Waves, ex-Nachtmystium man Jeff Wilson offers up solo debut, Open Roads, featuring dark and remarkable sounds in tune with Sisters of Mercy and Bauhaus.

Featured: Top of Home Page

The 50 Best Albums of 2020 So Far

Even in the coronavirus-shortened record release schedule of 2020, the year has offered a mountainous feast of sublime music. The 50 best albums of 2020 so far are an eclectic and increasingly "woke" bunch.

Books

First Tragedy, Then Farce, Then What?

Riffing off Marx's riff on Hegel on history, art historian and critic Hal Foster contemplates political culture and cultural politics in the age of Donald Trump in What Comes After Farce?

Reviews

HAIM Create Their Best Album with 'Women in Music Pt. III'

On Women in Music Pt. III, HAIM are done pretending and ready to be themselves. By learning to embrace the power in their weakest points, the group have created their best work to date.

Music

Amnesia Scanner's 'Tearless' Aesthetically Maps the Failing Anthropocene

Amnesia Scanner's Tearless aesthetically maps the failing Anthropocene through its globally connected features and experimental mesh of deconstructed club, reggaeton, and metalcore.

Music

How Lasting Is the Legacy of the Live 8 Charity Concert?

A voyage to the bottom of a T-shirt drawer prompts a look back at a major event in the history of celebrity charity concerts, 2005's Live 8, Philadelphia.

Music

Jessie Ware Embraces Her Club Culture Roots on Rapturous 'What's Your Pleasure?'

British diva Jessie Ware cooks up a glittery collection of hedonistic disco tracks and delivers one of the year's best records with What's Your Pleasure.

Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews

Features
Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.