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Pain and Glory – Film Review

Pain and Glory – Film Review
by David Turpin

Director: Pedro Almodóvar
Writer: Pedro Almodóvar (as Almodóvar)
Stars: Antonio Banderas, Asier Etxeandia, Leonardo Sbaraglia

Pain and Glory, the now-mononymous Almodóvar’s twenty-first feature film, is one of his very best.  Fairly agnostic about the Spanish filmmaker’s ‘good taste’ outings – Volver (2006), Broken Embraces (2009), etc. – this correspondent found the new film, a muted-yet-rapturous drama about aging, regret and acceptance, his most affecting outing since 1997’s thrilling Live Flesh.

Antonio Banderas – indelible in Law of Desire (1987), and recently drawn back into the fold for 2011’s spotty-but-intriguing The Skin I Live In – plays a filmmaker named Salvador Mallo.  In appearance, gesture, and temperament, he is a thinly veiled portrait of Almodóvar himself – right down to his litany of physical ailments – which gives an intriguing semi-autobiographical nature to the film’s unfolding drama.  Broadly speaking, it plays as a series of ‘re-encounters’ – actual, as people from Mallo’s past re-enter his life; and imagined, as he returns to his childhood through memory and filmmaking. In its sense of a life being appraised, Pain and Glory has certain echoes of Bergman’s Wild Strawberries (1957).  While that film found Bergman at his most tender-hearted, Almodóvar’s finds him at his most restrained.

That is not to say that the customary richness of colour and movement is absent from Pain and Glory.  Indeed, the opening titles alone are positively eye-popping; and the flashback sequences – in which Penélope Cruz gives a performance as Salvador’s mother that makes mandatory the hackneyed descriptor ‘luminous’ – teem with life, sound and humanity.  Even a visit to a hospital waiting room is adorned by a glowing, wall-mounted image of vibrant foliage – a deeply touching, and casually off-handed, observation on how we long to be part of nature, even at our most alienated from it.

As usual with Almodóvar, there are multiple formal devices at work – including voice-over, animated inserts, flashbacks, a play within a film, and a film within a film.  However, while this has occasionally felt like fussiness – or, at worst, wheel-spinning – the ‘collaging’ of techniques here feels seamless and thematically justified. Best of all is a formal device, employed late, that manages to deliver genuine emotional catharsis while also justifying the decision to have Cruz’s impoverished matriarch in full hair-and-make-up throughout.

Moreover, at a time when mainstream ‘gay’ cinema continues to fixate on the idea that gayness is an ‘issue’ for the young (Love Simon, Handsome Devil, Call Me By Your Name, and on and on and on), there is something profoundly moving about seeing gay men of a certain age on screen.  A passionate kiss between Banderas and Leonardo Sbaraglia feels blessedly transgressive of both heterosexual and homosexual orthodoxies – not because of any particular explicitness, but because both men are middle-aged.  While many continue to fixate on the idea that the primary objective of gay people must be the pursuit of ‘acceptance’, it seems necessary for a film to demonstrate that one might be more concerned with one’s back pain than with how best to participate in the self-actualisation of straights.

Ultimately, however, Pain and Glory is most memorable for its simple truth:  being here is really hard, and for the most part, age only makes it harder.  It’s the miracle of Almodóvar’s placid but ravishing film that it makes this melancholy message beautiful, generous, and life-affirming.  It’s not far off a masterpiece.

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