An ageing Salvador Mallo (Antonio Banderas) reconciles with his mother in Pedro Almodóvar's 'Pain and Glory'.

Film, Reviews, Screen

Reconciling a life’s long journey through pain and glory

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“In the cinema of my childhood, it always smells of piss,” ageing filmmaker Salvador Mallo says at one point in Pain and Glory. “Piss and jasmine.” Mallo, played by Antonio Banderas, is clearly a stand-in for the film’s director, Pedro Almodóvar, an enduring figure of the art-house cinema scene for over 30 years. As delivered by Banderas, the line perfectly captures the film: idiosyncratic, honest and deeply wistful, to an almost overwhelming degree.

We are in heightened territory from the opening credits, in which vibrant paint colours slip, slide and swirl behind the names. Eventually, the colours coalesce into a wall, in front of which sits a swimming pool.

The camera tracks a scar on the torso of a man sitting still under the water, and who is revealed to be Mallo. He is dealing with pains both physical, he notes, and “more abstract” – anxiety and depression. He has recently undergone spinal surgery and, as a result, he tells us, his life now revolves around his spinal cord.

Mallo thinks his glory days are behind him. “If you don’t want to write or direct, what will you do?” asks a concerned friend. “Live, I guess,” comes the ambivalent reply.

The rest of the film takes the form of Mallo’s reflective excursions into versions of the past, as well as the present. Flashbacks to his impoverished childhood reveal his close relationship with his mother (played by Penélope Cruz), and are interspersed with more recent events, chief among them a reunion with an actor he fell out with years before (Asier Etxeandia). 

Thanks to this encounter, Mallo decides to try out heroin – out of curiosity, he says, more than anything else, although it becomes increasingly clear that he is adrift, unsure of what he wants.

The childhood scenes – gently depicting a smart and sensitive boy prone to following his curiosity – contrast starkly with the older Mallo, so prone to melancholy and struggling to resolve his relationship with his mother. 

Pain and Glory is painfully frank in its depiction of the older Mallo’s self-imposed solitude, implying that this is how Almodóvar sees his own life. Banderas’s character shuffles around his inner-city apartment (modelled on Almodóvar’s own), surrounded by beautiful objects and creative inspiration. 

There are art books, artworks, just the right DVDs of film classics on the coffee table, and even a highly covetable Dolce & Gabanna Smeg toaster (“art for the kitchen”, as Smeg puts it.) It’s a colourful apartment, reflecting Almodóvar’s trademark colourful filming style.

But despite all these trappings of the good and creative life, Mallo is clearly deeply lonely. A chance encounter with his old lover – played by the handsome Argentine actor Leonardo Sbaraglia – provides respite: a deep, lingering kiss, but it’s only fleeting. 

Throughout the film, Almodóvar adeptly moves between his protagonist’s present and his past. What he is really getting at, I think, is revealed near the end. He cleverly structures Pain and Glory’s narrative to reach its emotional peak in a flashback, where the nine-year-old Mallo glimpses a naked labourer and is so overcome that he faints. 

It’s a heightened scene in a heightened film, and the impact of that gay awakening is so strong that it ripples through the rest of the film. 

“You haven’t been a good son,” his elderly mother observes at one point. “I’ve failed you,” he responds, “simply by being who I am.”

Banderas, rather heartbreakingly, delivers the line with no accusation or bitterness but instead profound regret, as if not damning her but himself. At every step, his mournful performance is perfectly at-one with the film.

In the end, Pain and Glory might be a bit overbearing and a bit self-indulgent, both in its self-preoccupation and in its form. But the film is undeniably the work of Pedro Almodóvar. By the time we get to its elegant final reveal, which lends all the scenes featuring Penélope Cruz a new emotional weight, one thing becomes clear: this is the work of a man who has commenced his life’s reckoning. 

Pain and Glory is available to rent from iTunes or the Google Play store.

One response to “Reconciling a life’s long journey through pain and glory

  1. A bit self-indulgent? Endlessly would be closer to the mark. Movies about movie directors should be banned, just like rock songs about life on tour. Sorry Frederick Fellini, sorry Jackson Browne. What happens on the set stays on the set.

    As for being undeniably the work of Pedro Almodóvar. It’s got Penelope Cruz, gay awakenings, constant mother references, Spanish subtitles… who else could it be?

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