Pain & Glory – Film Review

A Sunday afternoon sitting in a reclining chair at my nearest Odeon Luxe seemed like a perfectly relaxing pastime. Except that it was becoming sunny outside again and it was still technically summer given that it is the start of September! I was going to watch the latest Pedro Almodóvar film, Pain & Glory, and so convinced myself that it would be worth the sacrifice and indeed it was!

Not since Hable con Ella (Talk to Her) have I felt so emotionally engaged with an Almodóvar film! Pain & Glory is one of Almodóvar’s most personal films to date which, despite the director’s remarks in a Guardian Interview about its fictional elements, primarily reflects his life as a director. This film, in line with other Almodóvar films, delves into his relationship with his mother in scenes, despite her protestations in the later stages of the film, which are initially presented through flashbacks. The film is structured in a non-linear style and so it is definitely necessary to stay alert!

Pain & Glory film poster Pain & Glory film poster

Antonio Banderas brilliantly plays Salvador Mallo, who is a retired autofiction director, in a role for which Antonio apparently wore Almodóvar’s clothes and various scenes of the interiors were even shot inside Almodóvar’s apartment, which one character describes as being ‘like a museum’ with the various artefacts!

Through a series of intriguing anatomical images, it is revealed that Salvador is in intense pain with various physical ailments however, he also appears to be encountering mental anguish and is concerned with his own mortality. We, too, are subjected to a ringing siren during the descriptions of his tinnitus, given by the voiceover, so that we as the audience are also experiencing such an uncomfortable sound sensation and will be sympathetic to Salvador despite the distancing created by using a voiceover in such scenes! It is also the voiceover by Antonio Banderas that introduces us to this concept of Salvador’s body being a source of both pleasure and pain, hence the title.

We are further given an insight into the extremes of Salvador’s personality as he indicated that the only way that he can relate, similar to the Greeks, is by way of sacrifice. At such point, I was also wondering whether this was an approach that Almodóvar himself adopts given the level of self-reflection within this film.

Salvador’s directorial perspective also seemed to have mellowed to a degree, this may also be true of Almodóvar, perhaps due to his age, the daily pain he endured and his regular flashbacks of his childhood. He is no longer in a position to be making any films due to his physical ailments. Indeed, he remarked that his film Sabor made over 30 years ago, which was being presented in a new festival, seemed better over time as the lead actor’s performance appeared to have improved. A fellow industry professional, Zulema, retorted however that it is Salvador’s eyes that have changed as the film has remained the same! Indeed, Salvador and the lead actor, Alberto, had not been in contact since Sabor’s premier.

It was after watching Pain & Glory and reading the Guardian interview that I noticed that Almodóvar and Antonio Banderas had similarly lost contact for about 30 years between the filming of Tie Me Up, Tie Me Down and The Skin I live In which also adds to that sense of the personal account embedded in Pain & Glory which diverges from the fictional aspects. There are many occasions in Pain & Glory where art is quite simply imitating life!

Salvador and Alberto are reconciled not only through drugs, which assist to alleviate Salvador’s physical pain, but also with the potential of a new project as Alberto noticed a script called Addiction on Salvador’s laptop. Following a hilarious ‘off-site’ Q&A for Sabor, Salvador initially refused to allow Alberto this opportunity to redeem himself as an actor and perform Addiction as a one man play but later concedes as he stated, ‘without filmmaking my life is meaningless.’ It is at such moment that I could imagine that such words were very personal to Almodóvar himself as an auteur giving that this film is also meant to be a piece of ‘autofiction’, which I do query somewhat!

Earlier flashbacks had indicated the significance of film on Salvador’s life as during a choir rehearsal he admitted to enjoying ‘the Beatles and the cinema’ and we are exposed to scenes in the whitewashed cave, in which he lived with his mother, with his sticker collection containing Liz Taylor, Robert Taylor and other Hollywood actors. This scene may also be representative of Almodóvar’s own initial curiosity with Hollywood.

The flashbacks, intertwined with the scenes of the present, tended to occur during moments where Salvador is not so lucid whilst floating in a pool, scenes of water feature quite often in the film, or whilst in a drug fuelled trance where he has slipped out of consciousness. Those were scenes where I, too, sat back in the reclining chair and allowed a sense of contentment to waft over me whilst watching the sumptuousness of Pain & Glory.

As part of the film’s appeal, we are witness to the austerity of the cave from Salvador’s childhood compared to the vivid colours of the apartment in which he now lives. The glorious use of primary colours features heavily in the cinematography with bright red kitchen counters, blue and yellow cups and even the opening credits were surrounded by swirls of paint, all symbolic of an Almodóvar film and entirely seductive.

We are told that Salvador wrote the play, Addiction to ‘forget its content’, despite it being semi-confessional, but the subject of the content fails to remain forgotten, and even turns up to find Salvador, with delightful scenes of unspoken emotions and lingering camera shots in a mise-en-abîme.

Pain & Glory truly excels in drawing the audience in to its pain and emotional turmoil particularly in those monologues. In one moment as the camera focuses on a man in the audience during a performance of Addiction, it is obvious that he is crying and such scene seemed reminiscent of another poignant scene from Hable con Ella where a piece of music similarly evokes an emotional stir within one of the characters.

Despite the focus on the painful aspects, there are also moments of joy and pleasure to balance out the film’s structure. Within the earlier flashbacks, despite the poverty encountered by Salvador and his mother, there are aesthetically pleasing scenes of areas filled with bright, white laundry blowing in the wind. Joyous music also features at such stage as Penelope Cruz, playing Salvador’s mother Jacinta, sings to him as a child. The musical score throughout the film also depicts such positivity as it remains largely up-tempo without being very imposing.

The innocent activities of drawing and teaching are also tempered with the signals of pleasure as Salvador develops his first crush. The camera angles at such stage, follow a child’s gaze and sensitively depict a younger child’s lack of awareness as well as awkwardness during such encounters.

Salvador’s mother perhaps knowingly detected some of Salvador’s desires as a child, but does not express her feelings. However, during very poignant scenes as she prepares for the final stages of her life, having chosen the habit that she wished to wear for the occasion, Salvador apologises to her for ‘being who he is’. Such moments were truly heart-breaking to watch with the sense that there were many simmering unspoken emotions in effect, but it is all portrayed very deftly but beautifully within the film. Again, this was one of those scenes that did not entirely feel ‘fictional’ to me.

From the outset of Pain & Glory, there is that indication of the passage of time, which underpins the film, with hands playing a piano in a restaurant in the present with a smooth transition to hands playing the piano in the past in a choir at Salvador’s school, and indeed Almodóvar may be reflecting on seamless transitions within his career. A close up scene of a near death surgical procedure for Salvador may also be representative of that change of direction for Almodóvar as it certainly provides Salvador with a new lease of life and the impetus to commence work again on a new project, about his life, based on a painting found and the sense of yearning that it harboured.

By the end of the film, given the various story within a story arcs and the mise-en-abîmes, I was left wondering exactly which elements had been fictionalised and which elements presented the reality given such beautiful storytelling and compelling cinematography.

It is certainly a beautifully shot film combined with excellent performances from Antonio Banderas and Penelope Cruz and so I would recommend watching Pain & Glory in the cinema sooner rather than later!

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