By Afra Nariman
Pain and Glory (2019)
Directed by: Pedro Almodóvar
Stars: Antonio Banderas, Penélope Cruz, Asier Etxeandia, Julieta Serrano
A film director reflects on the choices he’s made in life as his past comes crashing down around him, while he deals with both the physical and psychological burdens that he endures on a daily basis.
Pain and Glory is an emotional memory piece in which director Pedro Almodóvar casts Antonio Banderas in place of the esteemed director himself, in a fictional story that is infused with reality. The film gives us an intimate window into the life of a famous writer/director named Salvador, giving us a glance into the inspirations and origins of the artist’s story, his developed love of art and the pain and glory that he has felt throughout his life.
The film begins in a mythologically hypnotic way; immediately ushering in what would be the balance of present and past that the film communicates through, allowing it to transcend both space and time as it portrays a powerfully personal story to us. Salvador is standing at the bottom of a pool, under water, in a slightly squatted position. Simultaneously, his childhood is being depicted in a meditative flashback: his mother (played by Penélope Cruz) is washing clothes alongside a few others, in a river just outside his home village. After just a few moments of natural conversation, the women by the river, including Salvador’s mother, begin to sing a mesmerizing song. It is at this moment, watching this hypnotic back and forth between past and present, that we realize the type of film we’ve been given. As the film slowly progresses, we realize this more and more. It is deeply personal, similar to Alfonso Cuaron’s Roma. It’s nostalgic about the past and partly tells the story of how a film director has gotten to where he is, slightly similar to Giuseppe Tornatore’s Cinema Paradiso. It is perhaps a bit less intimate than the former, and not quite as mythological as the latter, but it affects you in some of the same ways as both, and in its own unique ways as well. The film deals with topics such as love, regret, addiction, chance, art, nostalgia, and of course, pain and glory. (It adheres to it’s title more than most films)
Every explored topic in the film is conveyed to us through a deeply personal study of Salvador’s character. As a highly regarded and successful film director who has had his fair share of good memories, he experiences glory. It is in everything else in his life, that pain gets involved. Right from the start, through a short, yet effective narration by Salvador, we learn of the countless things that bring him pain, from his back, to his headaches, to his insomnia, to his asthma, to his chronic choking condition, to his memories and everything else in between; more and more of which are added to the list as the film moves forward. To express his feelings towards his numerous ailments, at one point, as he narrates to us, he says:
Although this quote is blunt and is meant to provide a light ambiance around an otherwise painful description of what he has to deal with every day, it’s also a revealing moment in our early introduction to who Salvador is.
One of the early explorations of the film comes as Salvador discusses his film from 32 years ago, leading up to its newly restored premiere. He expresses to a friend, that after watching it once again recently, after 30+ years, his views of the film have evolved, as has his opinion on the performance of his film’s lead actor, Alberto. His friend responds to him and clarifies that perhaps it isn’t the art that has changed, but it is he who has changed. Through their interaction, we get a brief study of time and how it affects both art and artists. One side of the message states that art can change in the eyes of the beholder. A couple examples of films that were originally not regarded as highly as they are now are, The Shawshank Redemption and Harold and Maude. In the same breath, Salvador’s interaction also offers the notion of the artist being the one who changes. I think that’s something that has to be true. Although I have obviously not been able to experience it myself; I would imagine that Martin Scorsese views a film like Taxi Driver or Raging Bull entirely different today in his older age, than he did at the time of the films’ release. In either instance, we are given this relationship between art and time, insinuating that art is in fact alive and can change/evolve over time, the same way that artists, or people in general can.
The film’s emphasis on art is prevalent in many other aspects of the story as well. The entire film itself turns out to come across as an adjacent art project to Salvador’s reality. In the end of the film, he finds an art piece from his childhood 50 years earlier, that he did not even realize still could have existed. This painting turns out to be the inspiration for his long overdue next project. Without giving anything away, I will just say that the presence of art in Salvador’s life feeds straight into the structure of the entire film.
A very interesting element in the story’s development is the notion of chance. In regards to finding the work of art that I mentioned Salvador finds towards the end of the film, he credits his discovery to chance. The painting turned out to be of him when he was a child, painted by a friendly neighbor, who turns out to be Salvador’s muse for his next film. After 50 years, the painting has found its way to Salvador, through chance. Another moment in which he encounters his past is also credited to chance. Earlier in the film, Salvador is reunited with someone from his past, who happened to find him by attending a performance put on by Alberto about Salvador’s life and memories, that consequently were about this man, who attended by chance.
Addiction is one of the other constant themes found within various segments of the film, highlighted both by his own developed addiction and the addictions suffered by people in his life, past and present. In the confessional piece that Salvador gifts to Alberto to perform anonymously, we hear a hauntingly beautiful monologue that depicts a person from Salvador’s past (the one who attended the show by chance), and his struggle with addiction decades earlier. Salvador (through Alberto’s voice) speaks to how it affected not only the addicted man, but how it affected himself as the friend trying to take care of him, and how difficult and impossible that task would often seem. A very telling line from Salvador’s artistic confession speaks to his dilemma:
After watching the performance and unexpectedly having his past addiction and love come crashing down on him, the man from Salvador’s past tracks down Salvador — and they sit down to catch up. Still reflecting on their past and the powerful performance put on by Alberto, the man asks Salvador if the pain that he put him through ever got in the way of his art, if it ever derailed his career as an artist and filmmaker. Salvador denies that notion and responds by sharing yet another powerful sentiment from the film: Pain shapes art. Rather than derail an artist’s career, it can often times inspire it and give it the necessary fuel it needs to be powerful enough to mean something and connect with the audience.
Through a concentrated study of Salvador’s past, his desires, his history of glory and ailments of pain; director Almodóvar has created a truly inspired film that touches you emotionally, nostalgically and with meaningful bravado. The film reveals itself as it progresses, as does Salvador in the story. Pain and Glory is devastating, yet poetically elegant. It’s incredibly acted and has a purposefully commanding presence from the very beginning, and does not relinquish its grasp of you until the very end, after it breaks the film’s elusive flow between past and present, by bringing the two together.
In some ways, this film is similar to Cinema Paradiso, in that it exists between a filmmaker’s past and present, as he reflects on the experiences that shaped him as an artist. Pain and Glory, though, is much less dreamlike, as it is brutally blunt and graphic at times; and it is not as solely focused on the origins of Salvador’s developed love of cinema — although it certainly showcases that as well — whereas Cinema Paradiso focuses almost entirely on the romance between an artist and his chosen art.
If you’re a fan of films, if you know what pain is, if you’ve had a long and perilous path to success, or if you’re just a fan of character studies that express the human condition — the balance of Pain and Glory in all of our lives — then this film is for you. Pain and Glory hypnotically and poetically transcends space and time, reaching into the memories of an ailing filmmaker as his mind and body begin to accelerate in their deterioration. The way in which Almodóvar beautifully correlates the two time periods in which he portrays, is masterful in so many ways. In the end, we come to see that, although love may not be enough to save the person you love; your love for something may just be enough to save yourself in your own time of need, as evidenced by Salvador’s revival as a filmmaker after succumbing to his ailments and having lost his purpose for so long. Pain and Glory is a special film that will leave you thinking about your own life: your past, your present, and your future as well. Few films are able to match this one’s ability to affect you in so many profound ways.