With Pain and Glory, Pedro Almodóvar brings his tally of movies to 21 – a coming-of-age, you might say – and raises to four the number which have featured a director as the protagonist, after Law of Desire, Bad Education and Broken Embraces. In structuring the picture around the reminiscences of Salvador Mallo (Antonio Banderas), who worries that he may never shoot another movie, Almodóvar invites us to consider Pain and Glory as his own version of Fellini’s 8½. As with any invitation, it is one we are entirely at liberty to decline.
Salvador is too consumed by his various maladies to turn his thoughts to any future projects. “Without filming my life is meaningless,” he sighs. But a new restoration of a movie he made three decades earlier gives him a reason to reconnect with its lead actor, Alberto (Asier Etxeandia). Back then, Salvador was unhappy with Alberto’s performance: “The bastard never played the character as written. I wanted to kill him.” Now a rapprochement is in the offing. They get together, talk over the old days, smoke a little heroin. Smack comes in especially handy for flashbacks, transporting Salvador to his boyhood, when he pasted pictures of Elizabeth Taylor and Kirk Douglas into his movie-star sticker album and swooned over the muscular labourer Eduardo (César Vicente), who was helping out around the family home in Paterna. Salvador’s mother (Penélope Cruz) complained that the place was scarcely better than a cave. Clearly she didn’t realise it resembled the villa where the young Guido was bathed in 8½, right down to the skylight and the knobbly, curving walls.
In a sweet, low-key tug-of-war, the nine-year-old Salvador (Asier Flores) and his mother make competing demands on Eduardo’s time. She wants him to put in the sink and finish the whitewashing, while the little boy insists on teaching Eduardo to read and write instead. Not for the last time in his life, he finds himself vying with a woman for the affections of a man.
There’s a liveliness and momentum to these flashbacks, in contrast to the static ruminations of the latter-day scenes, as well as a welcome female component that is largely absent elsewhere. It would be unfair to say that Almodóvar is a poor director of men, but his work with male actors has lacked the sympathetic richness and darting curiosity of his collaborations with women. With a few exceptions (Gael García Bernal in Bad Education, Javier Bardem in Live Flesh, Banderas in everything), men in an Almodóvar production come a distant fifth place after women, decor, cinematography and music. The knowledge that it was Almodóvar who launched Banderas’s career in the early 1980s adds a frisson to the sight of the actor playing his director’s on-screen surrogate, racked with aches and pains as well as doubts. Banderas has a tentative charm – he is always holding something in reserve – and is captivating in an encounter with an old flame, Federico (Leonardo Sbaraglia), but he’s fighting a losing battle against the lugubriousness of the material.
Of course, Almodóvar can still make a scene pop with colour. Faced with Salvador’s assistant (Nora Navas) in a mustard cardigan and him in a tomato roll-neck against a lime background, you want to lick the screen, not look at it. But that only underlines some of the listless shot grammar and functional dialogue (“The gastroenterologist and the surgeon can tell you more”). The subject of a man facing mortality need not drag a movie down – it resulted in Bob Fosse’s most ecstatic screen work, All That Jazz, which followed a director from ill health to the operating table, just as Pain and Glory does. It’s not the proximity to the grave that casts the movie into the doldrums so much as its earnestness, which is there in abundance when Salvador gives Alberto his monologue, “Addiction”, to perform on stage. Almodóvar doesn’t seem to realise what a howler the play is, riddled with cliché (“Maybe love can move mountains”) and mixed metaphors: “Madrid was a minefield, a dead end.” Well, which?
It’s strange, too, that while Woody Allen has received sustained criticism for the lack of roles in his films for performers of colour, identical oversights in Almodóvar’s work have been waved through without comment. If the appearance in Pain and Glory of several black actors, all cast as drug dealers in an insalubrious part of town, doesn’t provoke any censure then it deserves to.
Ideas about the responsibility of biographical art surface interestingly during a conversation between Salvador and his mother, played in old age by Julieta Serrano, a veteran of Almodóvar’s early comedies who hasn’t worked with him since Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! 30 years ago. “I don’t like auto-fiction,” she grumbles, sounding less like a woman on her deathbed than an ill-tempered literary critic. It’s a touching scene but also an anomalous one in a film so lacking in present-tense vitality that it shouldn’t be mentioned in the same breath as 8½ unless it is in answer to the question: “How many marks out of 20 does Pain and Glory deserve?”
Pain and Glory (15)
dir: Pedro Almodóvar
This article appears in the 21 Aug 2019 issue of the New Statesman, The great university con