Pain & Glory – Pride Month Retrospective

Written & Directed by Pedro Almodóvar

Rating: 4 out of 5.

There’s growth all around “Pain & Glory” (2019), personal, universal, and out with the film itself, and while there is an overarching narrative, Pedro Almodóvar’s film is as equally about his self journey as it is Salvador Mallo’s back and forth throughout life. A story of pleasure, it is Almodóvar after all, this film accounts for the lost opportunities, the rekindled friendships and plunges back into life, rebutting the dark stupors of depression, isolation and a rejection of the self – all in favour to produce a methodical, grim film which seeks as much enjoyment it can from the struggles of life.  

A movie director who has, for one cause of another, refrained from making a film for years, Salvador Mallo (Antonio Banderas) balances his chronic back pain, regrets, and stifles of creativity with a growing need to re-connect and fix estranged relationships. Seeking out a previous actor from his hit film, which is due for a re-release and Q&A, Salvador locates Alberto (Asier Etxeandia), and the two rekindle their “friendships”. Salvador is encouraged to take up heroin as a means to dull his pain, both mentally and physically. The drug abuse, visions of the past and regrets drive him to return to a theatrical play he has written but wishes to claim no credit for, as its subject material lacerates too deep on his mind, triggering thoughts of the lost love who has since moved on, choosing addiction over companionship.

As the ‘true’ narrative unfolds, ripples of memories stir in Salvador’s life, as the ties he attempted to cut return. Echoes of his mother, marvellously captured by Penélope Cruz, and in her later life by Julieta Serrano as a fiery woman, family-focused and proud, there’s a fragility to Cruz’s gorgeous performance which ripples throughout the film, and despite never sharing the screen with Banderas, influences the impact of his performance exponentially.

These interactions, often ending grimly, never pleasantly, through death, rejection or addiction are what forge this connection between Salvador and the audience’s experiences. None more so than with Eduardo, or Frederic, the man whom ‘Addiction’, Salvador’s play was written about, and is now happily married to a woman. The microcosm of suffering, betraying Banderas’ face as he steals these briefs glimpses of happiness, set against all the wealth his career has promised, but delivered none of the gratifications, ties together the split-second clues and shots of Salvador as a young boy, with a lingering eye towards the older painter Eduardo. Sexuality is an undercurrent in ‘Pain & Glory’, but masterfully handled by Almodóvar is no cheap tactic, but a personal infusion.

And while Almodóvar is the evident maestro of the film, it wouldn’t be quite so effective without Antonio Banderas. We see the world, as brutal and gut-wrenchingly awful as it can be, through his eyes, and what a sight to behold, like the dawning realisation of beauty, beneath all of the anguish, flourishes.

It cannot be stated enough, those unaware of Almodóvar’s work will potentially be put off by the artistic integrity of the experience – to be blunt, “Pain & Glory” is structurally a piece of artistic expression, wrapped in a cinematographic garb. It’s an astonishingly touching, poignant piece which lends itself to a staggeringly slow pace. This isn’t a film for everyone, but it is cinema made for and about everyone. We have perhaps come closer to Almodóvar than ever before, stripped of the emotional facades while sacrificing none of the visual or cinematic aesthetics.  

It is scenes set in the past, the carved home of Salvador and his mother which demonstrate José Luis Alcaine’s utterly exquisite manipulation of the light. The white-washed walls gradually cleansing the moods of his family, as they grow together, concealing the ‘ugliness’ beneath. His direction of cinematography completes the trifecta of the Almodóvar triangle with Banderas, revitalising a multiple of steady, or lengthy shots, offering a visual splendour to soften the scene, or starkly, cast the mood in shadows as ill-fated decisions and feelings surface.

And here is where ‘Pain & Glory’ suffers, in its valiant attempts to remain a film, to deconstruct much of the narrative to offer accessibility – in doing so, rips a little of the power behind the premise. A personal preference for some, but understandably lacking, is the conceptual ‘pay-off’ of the flood of emotion as the tears cannot be held back. ‘Pain & Glory’, instead, feels robustly human in this sense. Denying the audience this melodramatic moment, and instead harkening back to reality, to bleakness and necessity.

Naked, raw, and bare as possible, “Pain & Glory” refrains from pander and weaves itself into the fabric of reality. It’s difficult not to immediately become engrossed into the profoundly vivid colours, like a memory on steroids. Often harrowing, frequently humorous, there is little doubt to the bleakness of Almodóvar’s most ‘honest’ film to date, but quite often in this endless darkness of self-loathing, abuse and hate, there is the smallest glimmer of hope, and this light is what the focus of “Pain & Glory” magnifies.

Review originally published for In Their Own League:


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