An indulgence of filmmakers is to go beyond the frame and splice themselves into their films. Hitchcock, famous for his egoist cameos, is probably the first name that springs to mind. Fellini, too, went full-tilt in 8 1⁄2 as he looked over and into his creative abyss, as a real-life troubled filmmaker in the wake of the declining Italo-communist regime of the 60’s. Pedro Almodóvar’s Pain And Glory sits in latter end of that individualist spectrum - a visual paean to a sentimentalised and tumultuous childhood, overlaid with the reverberations of those formative events some fifty years later.
Pain And Glory is a deeply personal, confessional work
Salvador Mallo (Banderas) is the thinly veiled cipher for Almodóvar – an aging Spanish director encountering a mid-life crisis of sorts, in an apartment resembling a gilded mausoleum. Having recently picked up a heroin habit by reconnecting with a wayward past collaborator, he convinces himself that it is only a medicinal means to dull the titular chronic ‘pain’ in his throat which causes violent coughing fits. His secondary excuse is that the side effects of his legal pain management medicine causes longueurs of crushing headaches and depression, in turn, stifling his creativity. For the ruse that it is, heroin is the easy way out – and momentarily – it works.
Intercut with his modern-day malaise, Mallo frequently drifts off into reveries of his working-class upbringing in rural Spain, closely tugging his mother’s apron strings as she goes about her daily chores. The women sing in unison by the river, energetically handwashing clothes as the gentle morning light grazes the water and reflects up into their faces. The vivacity of recollection is carefully constructed by Almodóvar’s finickity attention to detail throughout the film - Banderas noted this as ‘a meticulous and demanding director…he’s got very a specific target, and if you don’t hit it, it can get nasty.’ This level of scrutiny is no surprise for notorious directors as a whole, but it’s a reminder that Pain And Glory is a deeply personal, confessional work.
Almodóvar’s choice to work with Banderas for an eighth time and, indeed, casting him to play himself is a canny decision. Banderas has been something of a journeyman alongside Almodóvar; here, expressing himself with the most delicate of movements and mannerisms, studied over many years. His softness of touch as he embraces past loves, his tender hand helping to establish the profound love for his mother, are more than simple observations. They transcend what could have easily been a ham-fisted approximation, making this one of his best roles in recent memory.
Almodóvar’s tone deafness in class awareness
To call the use of flashbacks Freudian primarily rings true, as Mallo’s mother (Cruz) offers maternal comfort and deep-seated nostalgia to the young prodigy. During a moment where there is much protestation over a meal, Mallo is given a block of chocolate to consume between crusty bread, as he sits alongside his mother, oozing a rich innocence and reassurance that only a child could ever fully appreciate. Zoom forward to the present day; now Mallo tends to his ailing mother, repaying the kindness and sacrifice she forwent to nurture his considerable talent, taking her arm and walking round the apartment as part of her exercise.
This back and forth with time pays dividends in satisfaction as the contrasts glow between the ages. Older Mallo may be going off the rails, but his youth is always there to remind us of how pure life can be. There's a throbbing adolescent pull throughout which yearns for the simplicity of youth.
More’s the pity, that in a rock-solid film, there is one sequence which illuminates a tone deafness in Almodóvar's class awareness. Mallo visits a rough ‘n ready neighbourhood to score drugs. The gang are all caricatures for stereotypical drug dealers – black, migrants, tank-topped, hanging on a decaying playground. The surrounding locals are violent ne’er do wells, prepped to engage their fists before their brains. And it's clear throughout this relatively short-lived scene that Mallo is at odds with his surroundings – a wealthy, well-attired older man, shuffling along like flashing beacon – but for all the attention given to the rest of Pain And Glory’s delicate mise en scene, this feels painfully detached and very clumsy at best.
Where Almodóvar excels is in his progressive attitude to sexuality and identity – a thread consistent in his work throughout his back catalogue, from Banderas’ debut for the director in Labyrinths Of Passion (1982) to taking prominence in All About My Mother (1999). By gently sowing the seeds of sexuality with the younger Mallo - as he wondrously gazes as a handsome grown man bathes in the kitchen - there’s a pay-off for the older Mallo emotionally concluding the ‘what if’ moment of his lifetime. It would be fair to say there are some lines which can be delineated between Pain And Glory and Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight (2016). In both films the manner of approach to same sex relationships by contrasting between timelines make them beautiful to watch. They slowly unfurl and are intensely felt when they gently blossom.
You could cite all the artistic references (Hamlet posters in Mallo’s apartment, the convention of theatre as cinema, the overt political messages about modern Spanish societal woes) but it’s all dressing to what underpins Pain And Glory. It’s a film of reparations, reconciliation and acknowledgement. The biographical details are rather scant because at the heart of Pain And Glory is not a glorification of a life’s work. There’s a deep humility and humbling of self; the things we should have said, the rough with the smooth, or as Mallo dreamily laments; ‘the smells of pee and jasmine and a summer’s breeze.’.