Pain and Glory review: Pedro Almodóvar makes an art form out of reminiscence

Pedro Almodóvar finds an avatar in Antonio Banderas’s terrific performance as a director transported by memories of his childhood, but this film is as much about Spanish politics as his life and work.

Maria Delgado
Updated:

 from our September 2019 issue

Antonio Banderas as Salvador Mallo in Pain and Glory

Antonio Banderas as Salvador Mallo in Pain and Glory

Pedro Almodóvar’s films are haunted by creatives – directors, actors, writers – negotiating personal and professional crises that have a profound impact on their artistic work. His latest feature is no exception. Antonio Banderas’s sixtysomething filmmaker Salvador Mallo bears a strong resemblance – spiky hair, mannerisms, attire and gait – to the Manchegan director. And while it is possible to read Pain and Glory as Almodóvar’s 8½, the treatment of remembering as a powerful mode of better understanding the present also positions the film within wider debates about historical memory in contemporary Spain.

Salvador’s journey back into his 1960s boyhood is facilitated by water – the first scene sees him immersed in a swimming pool – and by drugs, both prescribed and illegal. As in I’m So Excited! (2013), which similarly featured an elixir with the power to transport the characters to altered states of being, Salvador is taken to a place that allows him to make sense of the condition he finds himself in. Revisiting the Paterna cave dwelling of his childhood – a return to the womb in Freudian terms – he recalls encountering sexual desire for the first time and sharing the pleasures of literacy with Eduardo, the young mason helping the family to decorate the cave.

With his observant gaze and sharp intelligence, the boy Salvador is one of a long list of child protagonists in Spanish cinema offering a window on to the problematic years of Franco’s dictatorship. Like the precocious Ana Torrent in Carlos Saura’s Cría cuervos (1975), nine-year-old actor Asier Flores disarms with his incisive comments. Unhappy at being sent off to the seminary – the only chance of a decent education for the children of the rural or urban poor – he runs out of the cave in anger. The church’s corrupt control over education and public life is evidenced in rules that can be bent at the clergy’s whim, in the reprimand Salvador is given by a priest for having ‘pagan’ recreational tastes (The Beatles, cinema), and in the power exerted by the village holy woman – a gloriously pious cameo from Susi Sánchez.

Cecilia Roth as Zulema with Banderas

Cecilia Roth as Zulema with Banderas

The film has a fiercely political dimension. Salvador proffers the illiterate Eduardo access to an education that has been denied him by society’s wider inequalities – illiteracy in Spain in 1960 was close to 15 per cent. The vestiges of sociological Francoism also contaminate the present. When Salvador travels to the working-class district of Vallecas in southern Madrid to score heroin, graffiti on the wall spells out “Sister, I believe you”, fixing the film very much in the recent past. It is a reference to the ‘wolf pack’ case, which involved five men from Seville accused of gang-raping an 18-year-old woman during the bull-running festivities in Pamplona in 2016; the subsequent trial has polarised Spanish society, played a role in consolidating the far-right Vox’s vote and galvanised the feminist movement. Almodóvar’s decision to feature the mural – which he recreated for the shoot – aligns him with progressive voices in a country split across opposing political lines.

Pain and Glory is a film of multiple pleasures: the glorious summer light that illuminates Penélope Cruz’s Jacinta, the mother whose luminosity inspires Salvador; flamenco fusion singer Rosalía providing a rendition of Lola Flores’s A tu vera while Jacinta and her neighbours wash clothes in the river; the tenderness of Salvador’s reunion with former lover Federico 30 years on; the rapture on the child Salvador’s face as he is engrossed in Françoise Sagan’s Bonjour tristesse – a novel about a gifted teenager that clearly resonates with the young boy; and Julieta Serrano’s older Jacinta asking to be prepared for burial in a particular fashion – a moment that recalls Chus Lampreave’s demands to her daughters in The Flower of My Secret (1995).

Penelope Cruz as young Jacinta

Penelope Cruz as young Jacinta

The 1980s – such a formative time both in Almodóvar’s life and in the wider body politic of Spain – haunt the film. The spectres of this decade – the paintings, theatrical productions, memories and absent loves – remain a palpable part of Salvador’s life in the present.

Pain and Glory is anchored in a terrific performance by Banderas: minimal gestures and economical conversations give little away. As such, the mysteries of the past unfold delicately over the course of the film. References to Hamlet – there are posters for the play in the home and dressing room of Salvador’s actor colleague Alberto (Asier Etxeandia) – point to an existentialist crisis that affects both men. Alberto the convivial addict is trapped in the 1980s, his aesthetic out of place in Salvador’s ordered, museum-like home. But like Salvador he finds solace and purpose in art. For it is the pleasures of engaging with culture that Pain and Glory celebrates, whether watching a film outdoors – “The cinema of my childhood smells of pee and jasmine and a summer’s breeze,” Salvador recalls – or reading a novel in the intimacy of one’s home. Art gives form to that which cannot be contained or controlled and provides a way of making sense of the most difficult of pasts.

 

 

In the September 2019 issue of Sight & Sound

Stardust memories

An exquisite portrait of an ageing director looking back on his life, Pedro Almodóvar’s Pain and Glory seemingly merges intimate confessions from his own past with tantalising fictions. By Paul Julian Smith.

+ Pain is my life

Pain and Glory director Pedro Almodóvar discusses art, creativity, autobiographical filmmaking and why he wouldn’t change a thing about his life in the hedonistic 1980s with Maria Delgado.

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