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Any young movie buff seeking a shortcut guide to the work, life and style of Pedro Almodovar without having to plow through the whole 20-film oeuvre could do worse than head straight for Pain and Glory. This thinly disguised autobiographical roundup of the Spanish auteur’s personal and filmic past as seen through the eyes of an aging director would be termed a homage were it the work of anybody else — and though it might feel somewhat awkward that this particular sumptuous, exquisite love letter to the powerful cult of Almodovar has been made by the man himself, there’s still plenty about it to admire.
On this evidence, Almodovar is approaching his 70th birthday with his love of moviemaking undiluted. Pain and Glory teems with all the things we relish about him: the importance of women (especially his mother), shameless nostalgia and celebration of sexuality are all present and, of course, in its overstated way, the film is unfailingly great to look at. But it’s unlikely to be remembered with any great fondness by all but Almodovar diehards, its self-regarding inwardness suggesting that he’s struggling, as his hero is here, to find something new to say.
Pain and Glory reunites many actors from the different periods of a mostly distinguished career. A strikingly gaunt and grizzled Antonio Banderas, who first worked with Almodovar as far back as 1982’s Labyrinth of Passion, plays 60-ish Salvador Mallo, an auteur struggling with issues of creativity brought on by ill health. Following an elegant, abstract credits sequence courtesy as ever of Juan Gatti, displaying seeping marbled colors that suggest how past, present, fact and fiction will flow into one another, we see Salvador symbolically suspended underwater, isolated from the world, an appropriate early image for such a sealed-off pic.
One of Salvador’s own films, a late 1980s item called Taste (the poster for it contains a strawberry between lips, a hint perhaps that this is Almodovar’s own Wild Strawberries), is itself about to get the homage treatment from the Spanish Cinematheque. (For the record, Taste dates back to around the time of Law of Desire, and the director sees Pain and Glory as completing a trilogy that started with Desire and continued with Bad Education.) To mark the homage, Salvador, via his long-suffering assistant Mercedes (Nora Navas), contacts playfully rebellious actor Alberto Crespo (Asier Etxeandia), whom he hasn’t spoken to in 30 years.
Thoughtfully, Alberto wastes no time in introducing Salvador to the pleasures of smoking heroin. This comes as a relief to Salvador, a pill slave whose body is racked by a startling range of 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 dewy-eyed 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 Pain and Glory’s most sublime scene, a wonderfully played, heartfelt and beautifully written exchange between two late middle-aged men who only now, years later, feel able to confess the desire that has remained buried within them. In the intensity of its humanity, this is quite unlike anything else in the film. The scene ends with Salvador smiling for the first and last time, and rightly so.
Inevitably, Salvador’s thoughts regularly drift toward the past, and the pic is generally more engaging in its flashbacks than in its present-day — despite the fact that by some bizarre psychological kink, all Salvador’s memories seem to come filtered through the films of Almodovar. When Salvador (played by 9-year-old Asier Flores) was young, money was tight, and his mother Jacinta (Penelope Cruz, reprising a similar role to the one she played in Volver) is obliged to raise him in a striking rural house/cave. The young Salvador will go on to be a choirboy, with all, perhaps, that this implies (the theme, dealt with at length in Bad Education, plays out in the older Salvador’s throat problems). And it is in this house that the young Salvador will feel the first glimmers of his sexual awakening as, wide-eyed and guilty, he watches beautifully muscled builder Eduardo (Cesar Vicente, debuting) dry himself down.
In Pain and Glory, Almodovar’s world view dovetails entirely with his work-view. Little space is left for the revealing, the fresh or the daring — adjectives that practically define the films that made his reputation. The movie may be exquisitely crafted, but it’s also dangerously comfortable, so that strangely enough, what’s touted as being the director’s most personal effort to date comes across as an oddly detached and impersonal exercise in brilliant style.
As ever with Almodovar, there’s a look-at-me quality about things, for example in the transitions between past and present, when say the fingers of a restaurant pianist morph into the (distinctly threatening) fingers of a piano-tinkling priest. But it’s not always so elegant, with one overlong digital sequence about Salvador’s physical sufferings — asthma, tinnitus, headaches and many more — fusing CAT scan and X-ray images, as though this were a Netflix documentary about human anatomy. While it is as beautiful as many such Almodovar inserts have been down the years, it’s not clear quite where within the drama this scene is coming from. Indeed, watching the film, which is more about pain than glory, sometimes feels a little too much like a couple of hours in the company of your ailing, aged aunt: You feel her pain, but you wish she wouldn’t go on about it so much.
In another sequence, a stoned Salvador and Alberto fail to show up at the homage and end up talking by phone to the waiting public about their personal issues. This is a clever way for Almodovar to address the subject of having his private life continuously scrutinized by the media, but it fails to hit the comic spot. Also on the downside, voiceover is used briefly earlier on, and then casually dropped for the remainder, while some of the dialogue outstays its welcome. Basic plausibility, too, is sometimes strained in ways that would be deemed unforgivable in directors of lesser status — unless Salvador’s younger mother has undergone extensive plastic surgery, it’s frankly impossible that she could have ended up looking like her older incarnation, played by Almodovar stalwart Julieta Serrano.
Cultural references to the movies (“Does Liz Taylor sew Robert Taylor’s socks?” the young Salvador asks Jacinta in one of the too-rare flashes of humor) and to literature abound, including plenty to Almodovar’s own work, in what must be one of the most shamelessly self-referential movies ever made.
Jose Luis Alcaine returns to the DP helm, and visually Pain and Glory probably requires several viewings, so gorgeous is its attention to detail. When it comes to setting up patterns of echoing colors through scenes and down the years, nobody does it better. Salvador’s apartment, a beautiful if overwhelming clutter of brightly hued culture, is apparently a detailed recreation of Almodovar’s own, right down to the spines of the books on the shelves. On the walls are a ton of terrific artwork, with one piece, a lovely study by Jorge Galindo of a boy reading, representing a crucial plot element.
The childhood scenes, featuring blue skies, textured whitewashed walls and pure white sheets fluttering on washing lines, 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 overwrought little close-ups in rich monochromes abound, there for their beauty alone — a cellphone trembling seductively on red silk, for example.
Performances are excellent, with the energetic, demonstrative Cruz and the potently charismatic Etxeandia (both he and Sbaraglia are debuting with Almodovar, and clearly enjoying it) stand out. Alberto’s energy and zest for life and Federico’s palpable inner sadness both stand in stark contrast to Salvador’s self-regarding ennui, which Banderas, in an atypically buttoned-down, twitchy and somewhat mannered performance, struggles gamely to nuance. (In case we were in any doubt, apparently the actor is wearing Almodovar’s own clothes and his hair is styled to look close to the filmmaker’s.)
There’s 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 nourish his ego and his art. Though there may be an element of admirable honesty from Almodovar in this critical take on himself, Salvador’s self-centeredness makes it hard to engage with him dramatically, particularly since there’s very little within the confines of Pain and Glory itself to suggest that he merits all this tortured-genius treatment. He’s just tortured.
Production companies: El Deseo
Cast: Antonio Banderas, Asier Etxeandia, Penelope Cruz, Leonardo Sbaraglia, Raul Arevalo, Cecilia Roth, Susi Sanchez, Nora Navas, Pedro Casablanc, Julieta Serrano, Cesar Vicente
Director-screenwriter: Pedro Almodovar
Producers: Agustin Almodovar, Esther Garcia
Director of photography: Jose Luis Alcaine
Art director: Antxon Gomez, Maria Clara Notari
Costume designer: Paola Torres
Editor: Teresa Font
Composer: Alberto Iglesias
Casting directors: Eva Leira, Yolanda Serrano