Pain and Glory

 

starstarstarstar

 


Pedro Almodóvar's portrait of a Spanish film director in part echoes his own life.

 

Pain and Glory

Asier Flores

 

Ever since this film premiered at Cannes this year and justifiably won Antonio Banderas the Best Actor award, it has been talked about. Although its director Pedro Almodóvar was not himself honoured, some have claimed this latest feature of his to be a masterpiece and for anyone who has followed the career of Spain's most eminent living filmmaker it is a work of unusual interest. Whether or not it will prove to have strong appeal for those unfamiliar with its predecessors is more of an open question and one that may prove important since one has the impression that the distributors are hoping to extend screenings of Pain and Glory into the multiplexes rather than to promote it as basically an arthouse film.

 

The first half hour of the movie is pure delight. Writer as well as director, Almodóvar introduces us to an aging film director named Salvador Mallo, this being Banderas's role. We meet him when illness has played a part in seemingly ending his career and his thoughts frequently go back to his childhood. These memories, romanticised perhaps but not sentimentalised, are shown in flashbacks with the very able 9-year-old actor Asier Flores as young Salvador and Penélope Cruz as his mother. Such scenes including one of the mother and others washing clothes in the river and another in which Salvador's voice is tested at school for the choir are integrated into the narrative so smoothly and naturally that Almodóvar's art provides here a perfect example of how to make everything seem effortless. The tone of what we see in the first quarter of Pain and Glory is quieter and more intimate than what we usually get from Almodóvar but it displays his mastery of cinema. Both here and later in the film we can relish too the colour photography of José Luis Alcaine, the music score of Alberto Iglesias and the production design by Antxón Gómez.

 

What follows on from these early scenes is never less than highly professional filmmaking and for fans of Almodóvar there is immense interest in deciding just how much of Salvador Mallo is a self–portrait. There is much that fits that description and, indeed, Almodóvar himself has readily admitted to elements of it being present here. Salvador is shown to be an established talent, a gay man with past relationships but no companion in old age and somebody whose devotion to cinema is the driving force of his life. But, if a late scene with Salvador's mother discussing her impending death (in old age the mother is played by Julieta Serrano) does come from Almodóvar's life, what we see of Salvador's mother never chimes with the fact that Almodóvar’s mother readily played in many of his films, while the taking of heroin features strongly in the film as a habit taken up belatedly by Salvador although Almodóvar himself has denied taking heroin.

 

In effect, it is as a portrait of Salvador that Pain and Glory stands or falls, albeit that to create that portrait two elements are introduced that could be described as plot threads. One of these concerns an actor named Alberto Crespo (Asier Etxeandia) who had starred in a film classic made by Salvador some thirty years earlier but whose interpretation of the role had created a rift between them. Now he comes back into Salvador's life and persuades him to approve a staging of a confessional monologue in which Salvador had written about his love for a man who had become a heroin addict. That man, who had overcome his addiction, is Federico (Leonardo Sbaraglia) and he happens to be in the audience. This provides the second thread since Federico, now a married man, calls on Salvador. Their reunion, well observed, ensures that this aspect works very effectively whereas the scenes with Alberto are rather less telling (a comic scene centred on an advertised question and answer session with Salvador and Alberto will appeal to many but it does play like a set-up piece and the impact of Salvador's monologue is less than it should be because, being shown on a stage, it is devoid of any cinematic backing to empower it).

 

Overall, these elements do not seem strong enough to make Salvador Mallo a sufficiently striking figure in his own right to justify those who regard this film as a masterpiece. Fine as Banderas is at the head of a very accomplished cast and much as he deserves praise for the subtle, contained mode of his performance, he cannot turn Salvador into someone who provides the film with a compelling emotional pivot. The taking of heroin can be seen as an excuse to explain the return of childhood memories including a recollection of how young Salvador was stirred by the sight of a young worker, Eduardo (César Vicente), emerging naked from a bath but, regardless of that, the drug-taking scenes do become a bit tiresome in their repetition. However, Eduardo through the bond he formed with Salvador who taught him to read and write is neatly used as the source for bringing the film to an effective conclusion. Nevertheless, while the  quality of the filming renders Pain and Glory a work of real merit on a technical level, I do feel that to a large extent interest in Salvador is really drawn not from the character but by our curiosity in deciding just how much of Almodóvar himself is to be seen in him - and that means that Pain and Glory is far from being the best choice for anyone coming to Almodóvar for the first time, Indeed, even on that personal level, the film seems to hold back enough to give a little less than total satisfaction. When Salvador suggests to his mother that he can see that he is not the son that she wanted, we wonder to what extent he is referring to his sexuality - but that detail too is something about which this fascinating film leaves us speculating

 

Original title: Dolor y gloria.

 

MANSEL STIMPSON

 

Cast: Antonio Banderas, Asier Etxeandia, Leonardo Sbaraglia, Nora Navas, Julieta Serrano, César Vicente, Asier Flores, Penélope Cruz, Cecilia Roth, Susi Sánchez, Raúl Arévalo, Pedro Casablanc, Julián López.

 

Dir Pedro Almodóvar, Pro Agustin Almodóvar, Screenplay Pedro Almodóvar, Ph José Luis Alcaine, Pro Des Antxón Gómez, Ed Teresa Font, Music Alberto Iglesias, Costumes Paola Torres.

 

El Deseo/ El Primer Deseo AIE/El Deseo DA/RTVE-20th Century Fox International (UK)/Pathé Productions Ltd.
113 mins. Spain. 2019. Rel: 23 August 2019. Cert. 15.