Pain and GloryReviewed By Peter Sobczynski
Posted 10/11/19 09:50:47
It is always a bit disconcerting to come to the realization that the filmmakers who first burst onto the scene as iconoclasts determined to break free of established cinematic conventions and forge their own distinct paths have become the established voices whose newer works now take on a classical feel. Take the career of Spanish filmmaker Pedro Almodovar, for example. When he first emerged in the early 80s with such brash and provocative hybrids of comedy and melodrama as “Matador,” “What Have I Done to Deserve This?” and the international breakthrough “Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown,” he forged a unique and audacious personal vision and even if one did not necessarily respond to it (and I confess that I was one of those people for a long time), it nevertheless could not be denied. As time went on and his reputation grew, his films took on a new and more decidedly mature tone as each one was increasingly looked upon as an event. At one point, he even set out to make a film that deliberately evoked his wilder early works but the end result, “I’m So Excited,” was so dire that it almost served to prove that you can’t go home again after all, at least cinematically. With his latest work, the elegiacal “Pain and Glory,” he has turned his camera inward for a deeply, almost painfully, personal work that mines themes that he has explored in the past but in a more disarmingly direct and undeniably effective and moving manner than he has ever deployed beforeAntonio Banderas, one of several longtime Almodovar collaborators who turn up here, stars as Salvador Mallo, a celebrated film director who made his big breakthrough 30 years ago with the controversial work “Sabor,” a project that culminated with a very public falling out with his lead actor, charismatic junkie Alberto (Asier Etxeandia) on the eve of its premiere. Following that international success, Salvador became one of the most celebrated filmmakers in the world but in recent years, a combination of physical ailments has left him unable (well, more unwilling) to do much of anything else but hang out in his art-festooned apartment and avoid the outside world as much as possible. When a restored version of “Sabor” is selected to be part of a presentation of locally made film presented by a Madrid film society, Salvador takes another look at it and is suitably impressed by his youthful effort to agree to present the screening himself and take part in a Q&A afterwards. He is even seized with the idea of having Alberto, whom he hasn’t spoken to since the development of their rift three decades earlier, appear with him at the screening.
Salvador ventures out to visit Alberto and their friendship is soon rekindled with the two of them even doing heroin—a first for Salvador—as a way of smoking the peace pipe, so to speak. As Salvador continues the habit, he finds that the drug not only provides relief from his near-constant pain but also sparks any number of memories from his past. There is the handsome local handyman (Cesar Vicente) from his childhood who he taught to read and write and who returned the favor, however unintentionally, by inspiring his own sexual awakening. There are thoughts of Federico (Leonardo Sbaraglia), whom he had a doomed romance long ago that he then attempted to channel into a script. Mostly, there are memories of his late mother (played in flashbacks by Penelope Cruz), whose despair over her family’s economic plight (which forces them to live in a cave at one point) does not interfere with her belief that her son is destined for great things. These reveries prove to be more than mere memories to be contemplated while in an opiate-laced fog—they spark something in his long-dormant creative process that inspires him to look forward for the first time in a long while, though there is a serious question as to whether his physical being will allow him to capitalize on this new inspiration.
The notion of a semi-autobiographical movie in which a filmmaker takes a self-reflexive look back at their life and work is not in and of itself dazzlingly original, as anyone remotely familiar with the likes of “8 1/2,” “All That Jazz” and “Stardust Memories” can attest. To that extent, “Pain and Glory” does not exactly find Almodovar reinventing the wheel but what is different this time around is how simple and unadorned his filmmaking is this time around. Eschewing both the wild flamboyance of his earlier works and the more overtly mature and stately approach that he employed on later films like “Volver” and “Broken Embraces,” he presents his narrative this time around in a stripped-down form that is surprisingly subtle and direct and shows him willing to trust his innate gifts at telling a story without any of the trappings that he has invoked in the past. This is not to say that Almodovar has gone completely straight here—there are still plenty of arresting visuals and homages to film history scattered throughout—but more so than ever, those touches have been integrated into the proceedings without ever overwhelming them—Salvador’s easy willingness to take up heroin may seem contrived at first until we realize that it is just another facet of an addictive personalty that has previous fed on such things as storytelling and his willingness to live much of his life within his own memories. While the results may not necessarily be 100% autobiographical, it feels more from the heart than anything he has done to date and when it came to its conclusion, I was startled by just how moving the whole thing truly was in the end.
If “Pain and Glory” demonstrates Almodovar at the arguable peak of his powers behind the camera, the same could be said for what Antonio Banderas does in front of them. Almodovar has been using Banderas in his films since 1982’s “Labyrinth of Passion” and their collaborations over the years has formed the basis of one of the more formidable actor-director combinations of the era. If anyone is qualified to play a version of Almodovar on the screen, it is Banderas but he is not simply offering up an impersonation of his longtime friend here. In much the same way that Almodovar has toned down his directorial affectations here, Banderas has somehow managed to dial down his off-the-charts screen charisma in order to properly present Salvador in an appropriately vulnerable state. What makes the performance work so well is that it never feels like a performance per se—it is perhaps the rawest and most naturalistic acting job of his career (especially in the scene where he delivers the film’s key monologue) and one fully deserving of all the accolades that it has racked up to date.“Pain and Glory” may strike some observers as being a minor work in comparison to the other listings in Almodovar’s filmography—the kind of reflective memory piece that many veteran filmmakers do in some form or another in the latter parts of their careers. It is a film that has been presented in a minor key but it is nevertheless a major project from one of the major filmmakers working today, one that has continued to challenge and push their creative instincts in new and uncharted areas instead of merely resting on their well-earned laurels. The end result is a work that is both one of the best movies of the year and sure to be considered one of the high-water marks of Almodovar’s entire career.
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