Pain and Glory: Portrait of the Artist as a Not-So-Young Man
The tortured artist is a common figure throughout history and in Pain and Glory, the new film from Spanish filmmaker Pedro Almodóvar, at least some of the torture is physical, depicted on screen with helpful visual aids. Aging director Salvador Mallo (a wonderful Antonio Banderas) is in what appears to be constant pain, unable to work, unable to even tie his shoelaces. Upon a visit to an old colleague, an actor with who he had a falling out, he turns to heroin as a form of self-medication, seemingly on a whim, setting up what we anticipate may be an all too familiar narrative.
Except the familiar isn’t quite what it seems. Salvador is a heroin addict, until he isn’t. Memories remain in the past, until they don’t. There are the sorts of coincidences and chance meetings that are almost eye-rolling because they only happen in the movies - except maybe that’s the point. Dubbed an “autofiction” by many (a term the film itself pokes fun at), Pain and Glory at first glance seems likely to be at least somewhat autobiographical, given the subject; Banderas’ appearance even evokes a more muted Almodovar. But as the narrative progresses, there is a growing sense that this may be a false confessional, playing out too perfectly to really be the truth. But regardless of whether there is any truth to the narrative, the emotions of the film are as real as anything, shining through as Almodóvar lays bare Salvador’s relationships, past and present. We watch as Salvador gradually renews a tenuous friendship with Alberto Crespo (Asier Etxeandia), an actor whose methods clashed with Salvador’s directorial tendencies some decades prior. This in turn leads to a reconnection to an old flame, in a scene steeped in the bittersweet aura of lost love. The people in Salvador’s life all clearly care deeply for him, but perhaps none so much as his mother Jacinta, played primarily by Penélope Cruz in a series of flashbacks staggered throughout the film. As Salvador drifts in and out of his waking life, he reminisces about growing up in a small village, watching his mother work long hours as a laborer and doing her best to provide a better life for him, even if the means in which she did so were not always to his liking. Cruz is superb in these scenes, letting the audience see a woman who longs for a better life but recognizes that she may just have to settle for helping provide her son with those opportunities instead. Jacinta’s is not the only struggle we see. Though we see the physical manifestations of Salvador’s agony, we are subjected just as often to the emotional pain of those around him. Though he may seem to be the center of his own small universe, bumping into these other bodies as they enter and exit his orbit, it becomes clear that each of these supporting characters have their own tragedies and their own demons, some of which relate to Salvador and some of which don’t. It is a credit to Almodóvar and his excellent cast that so many of these characters feel so fully realized. In fact, they feel so personal that one thinks they must have some basis in reality, must have actually left their outsized imprints on the filmmaker. But Almodóvar gives us one final shot that seems to simultaneously answer nothing and everything, and we are left wondering whether perhaps the archetype of the tortured artist is merely a myth after all.