Pain and Glory: Personal Film from Almodovar, in Top Form–One of Year’s Best Movies

Pain and Glory, directed and written by Pedro Almodovar, played in competition at the 2019 Cannes Film Fest, where Antonio Banderas had deservedly won the Best Actor kudo.

There were high expectations among critics for a major film from the Spanish Maestro, especially since his last feature, Julieta (which also played in Cannes), was a good, but not a great film.

If memory serves this is Almodovar’s 20th feature, which among many qualities, boasts a cast with some of his regular and reliable actors: Antonio Banderas, Asier Etxeandia, Penélope Cruz, Julieta Serrano and Leonardo Sbaraglia.

The self-reflexive narrative consists of a series of reencounters of Salvador Mallo (Antonio Banderas), an aging, rather gloomy and humorous film director in his late sixties, who is now in decline. (Almodovar himself just turned 70)

Some of these reencounters are contemporary, while others are set in the past, mostly as a young boy (in different ages).

Several of the flashbacks are recreated, while others are filtered through the memory of an aging artist looking back at his life.

Among the episodes are his childhood in the 1960s, when he emigrated together with his family to Paterna in search of prosperity, the first desire, his first adult love in Madrid in the 1980s, the pain of the breakup of this relationship, writing as a therapy to forget, the discovery of cinema, dealing with international fame, addiction to drugs and painkillers, and above all, suffering through (and trying to manage) all kinds of health problems.

Narrative Structure: Flashbacks

Banderas, in the most fully realized performance of his career, plays Almodovar’s alter ego, a Spanish film director named Salvador Mallo.  Aging and in the midst of a creative crisis, he is afflicted with all kinds of physical and mental ailments.

The impetus for the first and major encounter is the showing of his early film, Sabor (Flavour) , which has been remastered and re-released to appreciative audiences. He calls in on Alberto Crespo (Asier Etxeandia), the lead actor from Sabor, with whom he has not spoken for 32 years due to a quarrel over the influence of the actor’s drug addiction on his performance.

During his visit to Crespo, he introduces Salvador to heroin smoking. When taking the drug Salvador revisits some of his childhood experiences: how he moves into a whitewashed cave house with his father (Raúl Arévalo) and mother Jacinta (Penelope Cruz), where a local laborer named Eduardo (César Vicente) learns to read and write under his tutelage.  The begins with his mother and her neighbors singing while washing their laundry by the river, with the young and cute Salvador watching them.

Crespo brings a monologue of Salvador’s memories from 1980s Madrid to the stage, in which Salvador’s lover Federico (Leonardo Sbaraglia) is mentioned.  Sitting in the audience, Federico is so emotionally touched, he is reduced to tears. Paying a visit to Salvador, he discloses that he has married and has grown up boys. The pair drink toasts to one another, reminisce and flirt briefly (Federico plants a passionate kiss in memory of the gold old erotic days) before parting amicably.

Salvador recognizes that his struggles with heroin and drug addiction mirrors that which he witnessed in Federico during their time together and he tells his doctor that he needs treatment.

In a flashback, his now-elderly mother (Julieta Serrano) accuses him of having left her and of not having been a good child. Before he can prove his love to her, she dies in the hospital–not in the country, as she had always wished.

Salvador’s assistant hands him an invitation to attend an art exhibition and he recognizes himself as the boy in a drawing on display. His memory flashes back to the cave home when the laborer was tiling the kitchen. Eduardo stops to sketch Salvador sitting in the sun, then says he needs to bathe. Salvador leaves to lie down on his bed, sweating from the heat, and faints from sunstroke when fetching a towel for Eduardo.

Salvador has bought Eduardo’s portrait of him and sent to his mother while Salvador was away at school, but had hidden from him. On the reverse is a letter from Eduardo thanking Salvador for teaching him how to read and write. Salvador’s assistant says it would be easy to find Eduardo again through Google or by asking around at the village, but Salvador dismisses the idea as being too far-fetched.

Salvador undergoes surgery to remove a growth affecting his throat that was causing him to occasionally choke.

In the final scene we revisit the young Salvador with his mother en route to their new home in the village of cave houses: they are having to sleep on the floor of a train station because the village they are passing through is celebrating their fiesta. The young Salvador watches the village’s fireworks in wonderment, fixated on the spectacle, while his mother is visibly anxious and upset.

The camera moves back and reveals a sound engineer recording the pair on the floor of a movie set. We see Salvador behind the camera, recreating a memory from his childhood on film.

Main Cast
Antonio Banderas as Salvador Mallo
Penélope Cruz as Jacinta
Raúl Arévalo as Padre
Leonardo Sbaraglia as Federico
Asier Etxeandia as Alberto Crespo

End Notes:

Having just won the Best Actor kudo from the New York and Los Angeles film critics, Antonio Banders is a front runner for the Best Actor Oscar nod; he has never been nominated before.