For me, it has become a truth that I acknowledge wherein a director, a storyteller, has one basic story to tell, and that is his own. It doesn’t matter that the storyteller or a movie director will navigate different schemas in order to seem versatile in various genres, and truly, many do. In the end, when all is said and done, when you look at the story from an objective perspective, the result is that details begin to emerge that will pinpoint to the autobiographical, and by essence, the most personal of confessions.
It’s no secret that Almodovar loves women, and almost always features them as the leads in his movies. So it’s rather refreshing to see that for once, Almodovar has taken a different approach and filmed the closest thing to a memory play in Pain & Glory (Dolor y gloria), featuring a writer/director not unlike himself who takes a reflective look into the past in order to find facets of himself that have made him the person he is today.
Salvador Mello (Antonio Banderas) is a director in decline whose movie “Sabo”r (Taste) has become rediscovered and re-released to a new audience who of course wants to see more of the director himself, know the person, as cinephiles do. Mello, however, is in a mental funk and suffers from physical ailments, which have him calling upon a colleague, fellow actor Alberto Crespo (Asier Etxeandia), who was the star of Sabor and with whom Mello had a fallout due to his performance. Crespo and Mello make up over some hallucinogens, which lead Mello to revisit the past when he and his mother Jacinta (Penelope Cruz, as usual, luminous and Earthy) moved to Paterna.
Crespo discovers Mello has been writing a story called Addiction which Mello considers not only unpublishable, but too personal. Crespo, however, is so taken by the powerful, moving text that he wishes to perform the play, and after some coaxing, he delivers an emotional performance that draws the presence of Federico (Leonardo Sbaraglia), Mello’s ex-lover and the lead character of the moving story. Mello and Federico reunite and have one of the most moving, emotionally shattering, and erotically charged conversations, an extended scene fraught with intense closure that we almost forget that Almodovar is barely halfway through his book of memories, and we still have a couple of scenes that have to come forth in order to bring the film to a proper close.
Some of these scenes are so beautifully rendered I get the feeling Almodovar took some time in fleshing out how they could transpire and look in the overall product. While there are no flashy transitions like the dramatic shift that happens right in the middle of Julieta, Pain & Glory meanders along, often using his special brand of humor and absurd scenes to pepper a moment of reconnection, and occasionally — but very sparingly — veering into pathos. As a matter of fact, this is one of the most emotionally restrained films I have seen in Almodovar’s body of work. Nowhere is there intrusive music as it happened, for example, in High Heels or All About My Mother, and simple expositions by themselves reveal layers of drama just simmering underneath. If anything, the most expressive part of Pain & Glory is the use of color, with every color getting some form of exposition, but especially his use of reds, greens, and orange.
Transitions to Mello’s childhood are extremely poignant and linger on much after the end; scenes in which the young Salvador wonders what will become of himself and his mother as they take refuge in a train station, or later, when Salvador confronts her on the topic of education, are the stuff reminiscent of Italian Neo-realism and cement the type of mother-son relationship that anchors the story, and even inform his own somewhat close relation to his assistant Mercedes (Nora Navas, an actress with a passing resemblance to Carmen Maura)..
Later, Salvador finds himself discovering his own sexuality in a rather delicate manner. Almodovar treats this specific sequence with extreme taste; it’s no secret that many of us found ourselves while admiring an older man, and the way this happens is almost accidental, but crucial to the future Mello. As payment for fixing up Jacinta’s house, Salvador offers to teach the young construction worker to read and write. Now, there is a reason the worker comes under a specific physicality (he is muscular and attractive), but before, it happens that an impromptu moment has the worker painting Salvador on canvas. Once he is done, he takes a shower, and that is where Salvador accidentally sees the older youth in the nude and faints dead away. The situation is not resolved, but the painting finds its way to Salvador’s hands as an adult and a short but moving letter where the young man thanked Salvador for teaching him to read and write.
The beauty of Pain & Glory is that its a personal story that anyone could relate to. While watching Salvador engage with the older Jacinta and filling her with promises that never came to fruition (because life happens), I ended the ghost of my own mother sitting quietly next to me, holding my hand, letting me know that it was all okay. You see, throughout the movie, Salvador fights with an enormous level of self-doubt stemming from his own self-worth, a stigma placed by Jacinta;s limited understanding. How many of us have had that happen, a parent who, while they loved us, couldn’t quite get us? Almodovar knows that all too well and plays that messy relationship with unbelievable compassion.
Its safe to say, and probably redundant by now, that Pain & Glory is not just a good movie but perhaps his best ever, his most mature, his most emotionally satisfying, one whose story continually reveals itself to its viewers, one that will evolve over time as a design of great honesty and emotional nakedness. It is anchored by its entire cast, but Antonio Banderas, an actor who rarely has been able to play quality roles, playing a haunted man trying to cope with his own sense of mortality and his future. Shambling throughout the movie with unruly hair and expressive eyes, he confronts all the ghosts of the past, achieving beautiful closures even when some of those might be a little messy.