Pedro Almodovar’s films thrive on the imbalance between brash idiosyncrasy and eloquent introspection. The Spanish auteur is a master of carefully-controlled chaos, of purposefully overwrought melodrama presented against a brightly colored backdrop with a winking nod to the inherent zaniness, somehow kept earthbound by its melancholic thematic underpinnings. Almodovar’s canvas elevates from the screen, but his characters are relentlessly human, mourning lost loves, regretting past sins, reconciling the trauma of the past with the psycho-emotional disarray of the present.
Pain and Glory is Almodovar’s own reconciliation of past and present. The director has always infused elements of his own story and persona into his films, but never before has he so directly reckoned with his own life and preoccupations. In so doing, he has delivered one of his more muted and straightforward works – the colors are still bold, but the broken-down world of these melancholic characters doesn’t allow them to pop in quite the same way. In Almodovar’s willful imbalance between style and mood, the gray of the characters’ psyches is starting to overwhelm the oranges and blues of the mise-en-scene. This film is about the search to reclaim the color…or, failing that, to let go of the resentment that the color has faded.
Such is the plight of aging filmmaker Salavdor Mallo (Antonio Banderas), who is essentially retired, though not by his own choice. Salvador suffers from a tempestuous combination of chronic illnesses that render him unable to work with the vigor he deems necessary. His only current “artistic accomplishments” are first-person monologues opining on his physical decay, written for posterity and not intended for public presentation. He primarily lives in the dark as a result of his constant headaches, his gait is noticeably hobbled by incessant back pain, and he’s struck with occasional coughing fits that render him momentarily paralyzed. “I lived my first thirty years with relative abandon,” Salvador tells us through narration that likely represents one of his written pieces. “But I soon discovered that my head and what was inside it, as well as being a source of pleasure and knowledge, also carried within it infinite possibilities for pain.” If ever one wondered about Almodovar’s prevailing worldview, look no further.
We aren’t shown these years of professional success and personal decadence – only told via Banderas’ grizzled, wistful voice-over. It’s frustrating to be told and not shown, though histrionic soliloquies are a frequent feature in Almodovar’s soap-operatic oeuvre, and in the case of Pain and Glory, the filmmaker isn’t interested in the splashy side effects of fame, but rather the invisible struggle of faded artist who is no longer physically permitted to create. This isn’t a film about a grand reflection on a rise to fame from the downslope, which would amount to a hagiographic exercise. Instead, its obsession is the search for inspiration as a pathway to a life worth continuing. Artistry is Salvador’s lifeline and his hope; without it, in his view, why even suffer through the daily physical torment? And yet the physical torment prohibits him from creating art, a cycle of anguish that hurts far worse than the bodily suffering alone.
Banderas’ performance may be his greatest ever, abandoning the suave that has (rightly or wrongly) defined his screen presence as a man who once had imposing swagger but now only occupies the corporeal shell. So he goes searching to reconnect with that spirit he’s lost, leaving no seminal stone unturned. He reconnects with a collaborator (Asier Etxeandia) with whom he’s harbored a decades-long grudge, stumbles upon a former lover (Leonardo Sbaraglia) after their relationship was ravaged by addiction, and reminisces on his first sense of sexual attraction, the first spark that influenced his artistic verve. The through line of this emotional journey is Salvador’s lingering memory of his mother (played in flashbacks by Penelope Cruz), whose strength through hardship left an indelible imprint, but whose rejection of young Salvador’s artistic pursuits (and with them, it’s suggested, his homosexuality) has left a lifelong scar. For Salvador, all of this is therapy, medicine that could rejuvenate a creative vitality that he once thought to be in terminal jeopardy. Drugs may momentarily soothe his pain. Surgeries may even be able to cure some of his maladies. But it’s his art that could save Salvador’s life, just as it has saved Almodovar’s.