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


Television


Recent
Film

Of Purges and Prescience: On David France's LGBTQ Documentary, 'Welcome to Chechnya'

The ongoing persecution of LGBTQ individuals in Chechnya, or anywhere in the world, should come as no surprise, or "amazement". It's a motif undergirding the history of civil society that certain people will always be identified for extermination.

Television

Padma Lakshmi's 'Taste the Nation' Questions What, Exactly, Is American Food

Can food alone undo centuries of anti-immigrant policies that are ingrained in the fabric of the American nation? Padma Lakshmi's Taste the Nation certainly tries.

Film

Performing Race in James Whale's 'Show Boat'

There's a song performed in James Whale's musical, Show Boat, wherein race is revealed as a set of variegated and contradictory performances, signals to others, a manner of being seen and a manner of remaining hidden, and it isn't "Old Man River".

Music

The Greyboy Allstars Rise Up to Help America Come Together with 'Como De Allstars'

If America could come together as one nation under a groove, Karl Denson & the Greyboy Allstars would be leading candidates of musical unity with their funky new album, Como De Allstars.

Music

The Beatles' 'Help!' Redefined How Personal Popular Music Could Be 55 Years Ago

Help! is the record on which the Beatles really started to investigate just how much they could get away with. The album was released 55 years ago this week, and it's the kick-off to our new "All Things Reconsidered" series.

Music

Porridge Radio's Mercury Prize-Nominated 'Every Bad' Is a Wonderful Epistemological Nightmare

With Every Bad, Porridge Radio seduce us with the vulnerability and existential confusion of Dana Margolin's deathly beautiful lyricism interweaved with alluring pop melodies.

Music

​​Beyoncé's 'Black Is King' Builds Identity From Afrofuturism

Beyoncé's Black Is King's reliance on Afrofuturism recuperates the film from Disney's clutches while reclaiming Black excellence.

Reading Pandemics

Colonial Pandemics and Indigenous Futurism in Louise Erdrich and Gerald Vizenor

From a non-Native perspective, COVID-19 may be experienced as an unexpected and unprecedented catastrophe. Yet from a Native perspective, this current catastrophe links to a longer history that is synonymous with European colonization.

Music

John Fullbright Salutes Leon Russell with "If the Shoe Fits" (premiere + interview)

John Fullbright and other Tulsa musicians decamped to Leon Russell's defunct studio for a four-day session that's a tribute to Dwight Twilley, Hoyt Axton, the Gap Band and more. Hear Fullbright's take on Russell's "If The Shoe Fits".

Music

Roots Rocker Webb Wilder Shares a "Night Without Love" (premiere + interview)

Veteran roots rocker Webb Wilder turns back the hands of time on an old favorite of his with "Night Without Love".

Film

The 10 Best Films of Sir Alan Parker

Here are 10 reasons to mourn the passing of one of England's most interesting directors, Sir Alan Parker.

Music

July Talk Transform on 'Pray for It'

On Pray for It, Canadian alt-poppers July Talk show they understand the complex dualities that make up our lives.

Music

With 'Articulation' Rival Consoles Goes Back to the Drawing Board

London producer Rival Consoles uses unorthodox approaches on his latest record, Articulation, resulting in a stunning, beautiful collection.

Film

Paranoia Goes Viral in 'She Dies Tomorrow'

Amy Seimetz's thriller, She Dies Tomorrow, is visually dazzling and pulsating with menace -- until the color fades.

Music

MetalMatters: July 2020 - Back on Track

In a busy and exciting month for metal, Boris arrive in rejuvenated fashion, Imperial Triumphant continue to impress with their forward-thinking black metal, and death metal masters Defeated Sanity and Lantern return with a vengeance.

Books

Isabel Wilkerson's 'Caste' Reveals the Other Kind of American Exceptionalism

By comparing the American race-based class system to that of India and Nazi Germany, Isabel Wilkerson makes us see a familiar evil in a different light with her latest work, Caste.

Film

Anna Kerrigan Prioritizes Substance Over Style in 'Cowboys'

Anna Kerrigan talks with PopMatters about her latest film, Cowboys, which deviates from the common "issues style" approach to LGBTQ characters.

Music

John Fusco and the X-Road Riders Get Funky with "It Takes a Man" (premiere + interview)

Screenwriter and musician John Fusco pens a soulful anti-street fighting man song, "It Takes a Man". "As a trained fighter, one of the greatest lessons I have ever learned is to walk away from a fight without letting ego get the best of you."

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.