Pain and Glory is a deeply autobiographical film produced from the life and experiences of its director, Pedro Almodóvar. I strongly believe that, as Astruc affirms in his legendary essays, making introspective films as if writing with the camera is what provides cinema with a direction, opening up vast opportunities to tell unique and complex stories that show the soul in its most vulnerable form. Pain and Glory is tender, fragile and bubbling with metacinematic references to Almodóvar’s career, bringing a familiarity to the text which is quite comforting.
The psychology of an ageing auteur has become a stereotypical film trope at this point, but Almodóvar manages to tell his story, of a retired filmmaker, with an original flare. The narrative swings gracefully back and forth between past and present, contrasting the sensuous with agony, desire with melancholy. Just as cinematographer José Luis Alcaine and production designer Antón Gómez embellish the film with bold primary colours which dance around each other, the protagonist, Salvador Mallo, dances with his demons. Through a woven series of reunions with people and places from his past, the narrative suggests that Mallo’s moments of success and catharsis, like any artist, come from his pain, which manifests both emotionally and physically in his old age. Almodóvarwants us to know that suffering and success aren’t opposite forces, they are perpetually inherent within each other, without either of them life lacks any meaning.
What really strikes me is the sheer trust that Almodóvar places in Antonio Banderas to portray himself so vulnerably. Of course, Banderas would be the only suitable choice to play Mallo as their relationship as filmmaker and actor spans a whole canon of films, therefore there is a mutual level of understanding and trust between the two. In fact, this partnership is mirrored in Mallo’s relationship with Alberto Crespo, to whom he entrusts full artistic agency to perform a deeply personal monologue about a former lover’s drug addiction. As an artist myself, the idea of entrusting another artist with my own vision is quite frightening. Yet Almodóvar shows it as an act of compassion, like the passing of a burden. After all, all artists suffer, no matter how different we are, and we build our glories from the same place of pain.
Banderas is exceptional. His performance is so subtle, beautifully navigating the protagonist’s moments of darkness and light, making you empathise with him fully. The film never took me to a place where I felt any abundance of emotion, but perhaps that is intentional. There’s an unfinished nature to the story which left me anticipating something more, but I suppose that reflects the nature of life itself, never perfect, always evolving.
Pain and Glory is a beautifully executed meditation on a life of colossal greatness and immense sadness. It’s a big feat for an artist to share their most personal stories with the world. Yet it is a blessing for those of us who continue to develop and grow our craft, to look up to great artists like Pedro Almodóvar who have navigated the world for so long, and are ready to inspire us to keep going.