Master filmmaker Pedro Almodovar has crafted an intricate personal story that spans more than 50 years in Pain and Glory.
Salvador Mallo (Antonio Banderas) is a veteran film director, afflicted by multiple ailments, the worst of which is his inability to continue filming. His physical condition doesn’t allow it and, if he can’t film again, his life has no meaning. The mixture of medications he takes means that Salvador spends much of his day lying down. This drowsy state transports him to a time in his life that he never visited in his movies.
He was in his childhood in the 1960s, when he emigrated with his parents to Paterna, a village in Valencia, in search of prosperity. His mother Jacinta (Penelope Cruz) is the beacon of that era, struggling and improvising so that the family can survive. Later, his first adult love appears in Madrid in the ‘80s. The pain of the breakup after three years remains strong. Writing was Mallo’s only therapy to try to forget the unforgettable and then the early discovery of cinema when films were projected onto a whitewashed wall in the open air.
Unintentionally, Pain and Glory is the third part of a spontaneously created trilogy that has taken 32 years to complete. The first two films were Law of Desire and Bad Education. In all three films, the protagonists are male film directors. Desire and cinematic fiction are the pillars of the narrative arc, but the way in which fiction is glimpsed alongside reality differs in each one of them.
Importantly, you have no idea just where Pain and Glory is heading and how it will play out. Apart from a few scenes when Antonio Banderas is required to play sickly, he gives a bravura showing as the introverted Salvador Mallo. I also greatly appreciated the performances of Penelope Cruz as Mallo’s mother and Asier Flores as the highly intelligent nine year old Salvador. Asier Etxeandia, who plays an actor Mallo fell out with years ago, also brings credibility to his role.
The key to the film’s success is in the careful scripting and direction, but also the nuances of characterisation. It’s a sensitive piece that relies heavily on flashbacks to build an engaging portrait. It points to a deep understanding of the human condition, its foibles and frailties. I’m all the richer for having seen it.
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Alex First is a Melbourne based journalist and communications specialist. He contributes to The Blurb on film and theatre.