It’s easy to throw a film like Pain and Glory into all sorts of boxes – boxes marked ‘self-portrait’, ‘self-indulgent’ and ‘love letter to cinema’ – but that would be to cheapen a beguiling and inspiring film that arrives with so much more subtlety than such labels typically imply.
Antonio Banderas stars as Salvador Mallo, a sweet and burned out writer-director who is paralysed by constant physical pain and turns to heroin in his dull depression. That synopsis suggests a clichéd tortured artist but Banderas is so much better than that, internalising Salva’s pain and living a relatively incident-free life. The emotion comes from what we learn about him through flashbacks and the frank conversations he shares with friends.
In many ways Salva is an avatar for this film’s writer-director Pedro Almodóvar, though he says none of the more lurid details of Salva’s life are from his own. Instead, he simply uses the figure of a filmmaker as a framework upon which to build his heartfelt essay on the joys and hardships of a creative life.
Pain and Glory is at its most radical and powerful during perfectly-judged flashbacks to a young Salva’s childhood. He was raised by a loving working class family (his mother played by Penélope Cruz) who helped him develop his natural creative talent in snatches of spare time, and these moments feel like a lament for all the other talented working class people around the world who’ve never had the opportunity to fulfil their promise. The pain of losing that life to his frailty is worn into Banderas’ face in every scene, with Almodóvar positioning it as a kind of grief.
Pain and Glory is a karmic triumph, using memory and chance to champion the idea that a good life, kindly lived, always has its rewards.
CAST: Antonio Banderas, Asier Etxeandia, Leonardo Sbaraglia, Nora Navas, Penélope Cruz, César Vicente
DIRECTOR: Pedro Almodóvar
WRITER: Pedro Almodóvar (as Almodóvar)
SYNOPSIS: A film director reflects on the choices he’s made in life as past and present come crashing down around him.