Pain and Glory by Pedro Almodóvar: A Film Review

by Gurkarm Singh

We all deal with the struggle of life in our own way; we dredge through the tedium in a manner, which makes sense to ourselves and only ourselves. As people, we look for something that wasn’t there to begin with – the missing piece that’ll make sense out of it all. We all look to something greater than ourselves. Some people look to God, others hope to rationalize the universe through processes akin to mathematical induction, and most hope to ignore it wholesale. They drift through life hedonistically looking for empty joys wherever they can be found; a chosen few are able to transcend. In his 2019 film Pain and Glory, Spanish director Pedro Almodovar examines his life and, in essence his art, through the one lens that has always allowed him a certain truth – film. Almodovar begins the film with a moment of total innocence: his childhood. This childhood narrative runs concurrently throughout the film in parallel with the present timeline. It haunts him. The film is written for, and only for Almodovar. It is his journey not only as a person but also as a director and ultimately, an artist. The film even makes subtle references in the form of a poster of a film from which he undoubtedly took inspiration: Frederico Fellini’s own 8 ½, a film chronicling his own relationship to film as a director.

The film undertakes a layered approach, one that obscures the lines between reality and the film’s reality. There is a telescoping of the symbiotic relationship between art and life that, in a cyclical fashion, feeds into one another in an unending circle that starts and ends with Almodovar himself. The film follows a director, Salvador Mallo, who is clearly a proxy for Almodovar himself. It is crucial to note the actor tasked with playing this role is Antonio Banderas, an actor who is a mainstay in Almodovar’s works. Almodovar lives through his actors. Banderas is able to capture Almodovar’s convictions perfectly. Much of the film surrounds the relationship between the director and the actor – the artist and the brush – both in the film and in real life; for Almodovar and those like him, the line is blurred. Much of it surrounds a falling out that the director has had with the actor. Yet, sadly enough, one cannot exist without the other, so they both exist languishing away without purpose. These two flowers, beautiful enough have withered and wilted out of spite. It is in this state of old age when all idealism, all apparent beauty, all innocence is seemingly lost that they come to us. It in this downtrodden state they are their most vulnerable. They bear all their hate and love in their true intensities because there is nothing left. Both men are on the verge of death, and it doesn’t matter. All that matters is that one last hurrah: to be young again.

The film likens the artistic struggle to an affliction. An affliction from which the artist suffers. The film’s protagonist suffers from a debilitating disease that leaves him crippled and unable to work. It is a pain that leads him, an atheist, to a belief in god and even pushes him to prayer. The actor goes as far as to say, “You forget I’m an actor… and I suffer very well”. The artist struggles and suffers all in pursuit of an elusive truth; a truth that we can only feel and one that must bleed and let those feelings flow from our insides and into the outside world. Yes, there is possibility for great glory, but there is the inescapable pain felt in its pursuit. Like an affliction, Mallo’s devotion to the medium of film has caused him a great deal of pain such as his strained relationships.

The film explores love. Love in the form of a mother’s, love in the form of a friend’s, and ultimately love in the form of a lover’s. However, Mallo is an artist and so, he is meant for film, and film is meant for him; anything else is just filler between the two. Yet, there is a longing within Mallo. A desire to return to normal and to be a better son, a better friend, and to have been with his lover. But he’s unable to. It’s tragic. He’s unable to do the things a person is supposed to do when confronted with the existence of a society. He says the wrong things, and he does the wrong things. When finally reunited with the actor, he is physically unable to keep himself from dredging up the past of his heroin addiction and how it affected their shared film. He does this not because he is cruel, but because he sees his films as an extension of himself – when they hurt, he hurts. Almodovar offers an honesty that is brutal. He has, in unending devotion to his art, alienated himself from the rest. In order to create, he must live in the most vulnerable manner; he must bare his soul fully and then pick up the pieces. Almodovar has his proxy take heroin. Often times, it is thought that the artist must push himself physically and mentally to create something pure and truthful – that he must push himself to the precipice, so a divine truth may be procured.

Almodovar succeeds in doing what all film seeks to do, eluding the bonds of time. The movement from now to then is not felt. Instead, it is the logical course of action. Memories bleed into life and reinforce our actions. The way in which it is done is fluid-like, like the ebb and flow of a wave that carries us along with it. What happened then is just as pertinent to the story as what happens now. The past provides the context for the birth of the future and likewise, the future retroactively provides context for the past. Almodovar as a man gives meaning to the innocent boy we see. This is not merely a boy devoid of experiences; he is the man he was born to become. In that sense, he still is that child and that loss of innocence he felt as a child still guides him to this day. Everything that has happened to him is felt in his art. In seeing his life unfold, we are given witness to his process: the building blocks of the art that he creates.

Poster provided by Bellmore Movies and Showplace.