Pedro Almodovar’s ‘Pain and Glory’ begins with the shot of Salvador Mallo (Antonio Banderas, raw and powerful) at the bottom of a swimming pool, and as the shot lingers on his near-naked frame, it seems as if he is meditating. Still, and swirling in blue light, Almodovar cuts this scene with a shot of a little boy with his mother at a riverside. This is the beginning of a series of flashbacks that spill throughout the run time, Mallo’s childhood scattered with his present- caught with such sensitivity and depth by Almodovar, it grows on you till the end credits roll.
Pain and Glory revolves around an aged director (Banderas) whose acclaimed early film ‘Sabor’ will be screened, and for that he is required to rekindle past relations with his actor for a detailed retrospective on the film. This drives the film’s narrative initially, and then leaps deep into it, almost forgetting its intention on the surface level, keeping it seemingly intimate and autobiographical at the same instant. A bond develops between the star and the director after ages, and at once Mallo indulges in substance abuse. But it is this daze that allows him to escape the dread of his very present, and it is here where the flashbacks arrive, conniving a story of its own.
Penelope Cruz plays the young mother in a beautiful performance, while Asier Flores is Mallo’s younger self. Salvador, when he comes back to the present, is pained physically. He is depressed and in a state of creative block, but never for once is his degradation portrayed in pitiful gaze. For a depressed man, Salvador still manages to look forward to things, reminding us how we turn ourselves into performers. He dresses in vibrant colours, and stays in a designed house, which a character suggests to resemble a museum. Perhaps, it is built to resemble one, a museum of lost years, of gained materials and remembrance of things past.
Almodovar is a director of immense playfulness and style, that is always grounded in an emotional truth that resonates and holds ground. From ‘Talk to her’ to ‘Broken Embraces’ to ‘Volver’, Almodovar has delved deep in the psyche of the female mind, but here in ‘Pain and Glory’ he is shifting his position- for the very first time, he is looking into himself, and creating something that is at once self-aware and true. He has pulled his own history into his earlier films, from ‘Bad Education’ to ‘Law of Desire’, and he has even called ‘Pain and Glory’ the final installation to the previous two films of personal trilogy. Very often he blurs the line between reality and representation, but it is exactly the point of intersection which Almodovar celebrates in quiet glory- a space where art blooms. Here still, the palette of the film is bright and vibrant, and the scenes play out with the same Almodovar swiftness, but what is more visible here is the piercing intelligence. In almost every frame, Almodovar’s passion for cinema is palpable, his vision true and honest.
Almodovar wrote the screenplay and especially the role of Salvador keeping Banderas in mind, and this collaboration pays off. Banderas is achingly vulnerable here, and plays Salvador with such grace and understanding, his downcast eyes lifting up at certain instances make you smile. This is assuredly one of his very best performances that inarguably won him the coveted Best Actor prize at this year’s Cannes Film Festival. When his aged mother (Julieta Serrano, heartbreaking) who isnearing death says that he has not been a good son, Salvador’s face stops to recollect for a moment. Banderas plays this scene with glorious control.
How do we reconcile with the past that feels better and worse at the same time? How do we cope with the distance we face while grow up, and the divide that our present seems to have breached? For Salvador, it is in accordance with his hallucinations, his relapse. The submission that reaches out to him and ultimately regains his artistic abilities. He listens and accesses his past, and even apologizes. Almodovar celebrates this messiness that hangs over us, that takes all of time at once, and creates sensuous pleasure out of it. A remembrance that is drenched in pain, but is ultimately rewarded in turning it into glory.