Film Review: Pain and Glory

Film Review: Pain and Glory

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By Belle McIntyre

Aficionados of the oeuvre of Pedro Almodovar will not be surprised that this film is composed of elements from the director’s own life, which has been his prime source material for all 22 of his films. This one, however, is different. It is more overtly personal in that he has inserted a character largely modeled on himself. Salvador Mallo (Antonio Banderas) is an aging film director who has had an illustrious career, but has become derailed for quite some time by a litany of debilitating physical ailments. The film opens with the image of a man in a chair sitting on the bottom of a pool. As the camera zooms in and pans around him a surgical scar which runs the length of his spine is revealed and the voiceover explains that this is one of the only ways he can feel anything less than extreme pain.

An early sequence of medical textbook explanations of various maladies accompanied by animations of the anatomy of Salvador’s ailments lays them out for us. He is a man whose body is laying siege to his life. He suffers from back pain, migraines, depression, anxiety, tinnitus and an odd esophageal condition which makes eating difficult and causes spasms of choking. The combined effect of all of this has rendered him unable or unwilling to see people or to continue to do the work that has sustained and rewarded him all of his adult life. He lives alone in a wonderfully art-filled apartment in Madrid, whimsically decorated with bright colors and vividly-patterned fabrics, fashioned after Almodovar’s own apartment. He has a wryly detached attitude toward his current condition and a passive acceptance of his limitations.

Credit: El Deseo

Credit: El Deseo

A few events finally shake Salvador out of his lethargy and re-animate his life. Chief among them is the re-release of one of his early major films from 30 years ago. He has been asked to present the film, a sensationally outré piece of work called Sabor. Although, it was wildly successful, he was never satisfied with it due to the performance of the lead actor, Alberto Crespo (Asier Exteandia), a man with a heroin habit. They have not spoken for 30 years. On a whim, he calls on Alberto and tells him about the presentation. Alberto, who is still chafing at the public humiliation by Salvador reluctantly receives him. As they talk, Alberto brings out the heroin, which he smokes and offers some to Salvador, who hesitantly tries it and then slips off into a blissful pain-free state. 

While Salvador drifts, Alberto discovers a manuscript of a monologue titled Addiction, which he strongly relates to and longs to perform it. Salvador dismisses it. A tale of a love affair from the point of view of a man whose lover is taken from him by his addiction, it is a wrenching evocation of the pain and the helplessness of realizing that his love is not enough to save them. When Salvador asks Alberto to come with him to the presentation of Sabor, Alberto is resistant, still not trusting Salvador. He finally agrees on the condition that Salvador allow him to perform Addiction. Salvador agrees but refuses to have his name used as author. The intensely bravura staged performance of Alberto in Addiction is one of the more brilliant scenes in the film. This meeting with Alberto opens two new paths to Salvador. The first being his discovery of heroin as a more effective pain killer than oxycontin. It also effects a reunion with Federico (Leonardo Sbaraglia), the man who inspired Addiction. That is a beautiful, subtle and sensitive encounter, very delicately handled.

Much of the film is narrated by Salvador, as it moves between the present, the recent and the distant past in ways reminiscent of Proust’s Memories of Things Past. We visit his young self (Asier Flores) being raised by his beautiful mother, Jacinta (Penelope Cruz). As poor as they are, she has aspirations for her son and is determined that he be educated and have a better life. Never has poverty looked so idyllic and beautiful, including living in an underground cave-like house with only a skylight in one room. Salvador’s education is a result of his beautiful voice which enchants the choirmaster gets him a place in a Catholic school choir and a scholarship to the school.

Credit: El Deseo

Credit: El Deseo

Among the early childhood memories is one where he has his first glimpse of a naked young man bathing. He has such a strong emotional reaction that he faints, a foreshadowing of his adult  sexual preference. Years later a sketch that the young man had made of the young Salvador on a torn piece of paper mysteriously finds its way into a gallery showing the work of untrained artists. Recognizing himself in the picture Salvador buys it. It plays the part of Rosebud as in Citizen Kane. The scenes with his aged mother (Julieta Serano) are in stark contrast to his youthful recollections. She is depicted as  feisty, critical and somewhat unforgiving – saying she does not appreciate being portrayed in what he calls autofiction. As she faces death, she tells him he has disappointed her.

One of the early boyhood scenes with Jacinta, which takes place in a train station where they are obliged to spend the night, is gorgeously shot against the mosaic wall behind the bench over which Jacinta drapes brightly colored bedding for Salvador and makes her own place on the floor beside him. This scene is recreated again at the end of the film. When the camera pulls away we can see that it is now a movie set with actors and Salvador  behind the camera. 

Salvador has been saved from the tyranny of his body and heroin by reconnecting to his art. The line between reality and imagination is once again blurred underscoring the notion that they are an inseparable part of who we are as people. Almodovar has brilliantly mixed these elements into a heady and delicious brew, which could cause serious emotional reactions mixed with delirious speculation. 

Credit: El Deseo

Credit: El Deseo

Banderas said that working on this film was the best experience of his acting life, that he went to a place that was foreign and then beyond. As someone who was discovered by and worked with the director for over three decades, to him this film felt more like Almodovar than actual Almodovar. It feels like a different Banderas that we are seeing as well. He has a new layer of depth and subtlety. The cinematography by longtime collaborator José Luis Alcaine creates the sublime and luminous look that has become an Almodovar trademark. There is so much to be grateful for in this film. Long may he live and work.

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