Longtime collaborator Antonio Banderas stars in Pedro Almodóvar’s semi-autobiographical Pain and Glory
It’s not difficult to detect the autobiographical details in Pedro Almodóvar’s Pain and Glory, the story of a middle-aged film director struggling through a creative block who is exasperated by a number of personal crises: his health is failing, he is still recovering from the death of his mother, he is becoming subsumed by a substance abuse habit, and he has to deal with the emergence of an old friend-turned-nemesis. That man is Salvador Mallo (played by Antonio Banderas), who sports Almodóvar’s trademark hairstyle, wears a wardrobe consisting of outfits that Almodóvar would wear on the red carpet, and lives in Almodóvar’s real-life apartment. To hammer home Almodóvar’s desire for Pain and Glory to belong to the grand tradition of auteur autofiction, a large poster of Fellini’s 8½ hangs in Mallo’s living room.
Why, then, does it feel like Almodóvar is holding back? Pain and Glory is a work in minor key, pitched at a level of low-key tastefulness that has become the standard mode in Almodóvar’s late period. Once a vibrant, playful young auteur eager to experiment with tone, genre, and structure, Almodóvar’s career took a turn with the superb All About My Mother, which retained the playful form but added a newfound melancholy and emotional complexity. A few more great films followed, until Almodóvar settled into a neat niche of bland respectability, churning out candy-coloured melodramas like Broken Embraces, Volver, and Julieta (the transfixing, subversive thriller The Skin I Live In stands as an outlier). These are, without doubt, smartly written, well-acted, carefully mounted movies, but they feel neutered. They abandon immersive visual storytelling for dull exposition, and rely too heavily on the twists and turns of convoluted plots. Their flat, inert approach to classical storytelling makes one long for the anarchic exuberance of Almodóvar’s early work.
A self-reflexive, candy-coloured, character-driven drama packed with references to the so-called golden age of European cinema, Pain and Glory unfortunately falls very much in line with this trend. It is fitfully amusing and occasionally affecting, but it’s mostly limp, bloated, and tedious. Its ruminations on homosexual identity, art, performance, romantic obsession, and aging all feel rote; the sense of boundless curiosity and fearless discovery which once distinguished the auteur’s cinema has all but disappeared. It’s far from a disaster — nobody could argue that Almodóvar doesn’t know how to construct a film — but it’s awfully underwhelming, a lethargic mediocrity that feels like it was made an autopilot. Despite the grandiose title, Pain and Glory is terminally afraid of arousing any particularly strong emotions.
Pain and Glory is split between two timelines: in the present, Salvador is invited to take part in a Q&A for a new restoration of the film that made him famous twenty years prior. The event puts him back in contact with Alberto (Asier Etxeandia), Salvador’s former friend and leading man. The pair parted after a particularly disastrous filmmaking experience in which Alberto’s performance was, in Salvador’s eyes, jeopardized by his coke addiction. The reunion at first opens old wounds, but the duo soon recognize that they are both at a similar state of stagnation in their lives, and their destructive friendship is reunited. Alberto encourages Salvador to numb his pain with heroin, and Salvador helps Alberto to rebuild his failing acting career by scribing script for him to perform as a one-man theatre piece. Salvador has based this material on personal experiences, but is too embarrassed about the confessional nature of the material to release it under his own name.
The other half of the film is comprised of incidents from Salvador’s upbringing in 1960s Valencia, exploring his troubled relationship with his mother (Penelope Cruz), his ties to Christianity, and his first sensations of homosexual feeling. At first, these scenes seem disconnected, but they eventually focus in on Salvador’s flirtation with an older boy from his village. Scenes from past and present are intercut until the two strands converge into a final act in which Salvador seeks to track down the mysterious young man from his past.
Yet, despite the therapy session-aping structure of Pain and Glory, Salvador remains a distant, aloof presence — a collection of broad behavioral tics and psychological complexes rather than a fully realized character. Almodóvar explicitly positions his film in a lineage of meta-cinematic directorial self-portraits, but unlike the great works in that genre — Godard’s Contempt, Ferrara’s Dangerous Game, Eastwood’s White Hunter Black Heart, Antonioni’s Identification of a Woman — Pain and Glory never properly articulates how its protagonist’s personal life informs his art, and vice versa. Also, the fragmentary structure fits together so neatly in deterministic jigsaw-like fashion that it loses all sense of intrigue; the construction of the flashbacks do not register as the turbulent recollections of a conflicted and regretful man, but the schematic dot-connecting of a canny screenwriter. Pain and Glory frames itself as a confessional, but it is ultimately content to merely scan the surface.