As self-reflective as it is starkly modernist, Pedro Almodóvar’s latest is navel gazing at its finest.
This review is part of our coverage of the 2019 Cannes Film Festival.
“I love The Beatles and the cinema,” the young, glowing Salvador (Asier Flores) tells his choir teacher. “Ah. I will save you from your more pagan tastes,” he responds, but Salvador doesn’t think anything of it: he flickers into song, eagerly crooning each of his instructor’s notes with promise and care.
Cut to his adult self (Antonio Banderas), a film director in his twilight years whose face sits far from the cries and moans of his hit film, Sabor. A cinematheque is programming it as part of a retrospective and wants some words from him and right-hand man/actor, Federico (Leonardo Sbaraglia), but he won’t budge. He’s too preoccupied in pondering sex, love, religion, and all-commanding autocritiques. Sound like anyone familiar?
Salvador could, in theory, pass for any filmmaker, but there’s no questioning that he is Pedro Almodóvar. His existence — a tessellate of bold colors and attention to contrast courtesy of José Luis Alcaine — practically dares audiences to associate him with anyone else. As if sitting on a carousel that spins between sharp retrospection and comparatively obvious self-inserts, Pain and Glory plays like Pedro Almodóvar’s All That Jazz.
Is the director explicitly aping the Bob Fosse film, which, in turn, echoes the years-prior work of John Cassavetes? Or is he reflecting a basic self-reflection that’s existed long before that? The film practically lives in a hall of mirrors, and the Spaniard knows that. Its strands of fictionalized memoir work decently, but it’s its more insightful look at religion and art throughout childhood that bring something to the table.
Pain and Glory plays like Pedro Almodóvar’s All That Jazz.
You see, Salvador has been keeping diaries of sorts on his computer, one of which Frederico snoops upon while the director is passed out. It’s a document called “The Addiction,” and Frederico goads Salvador into performing it as some sort of spoken word piece. Trust me, this sounds insufferable on paper—the sort of self-pity that would-be auteurs dole out when they’re out of ideas. But for most of his film, Almodóvar treats his onscreen avatar as a narrative token first, oscillating between his present and his past.
His present is brought wonderfully to life by Banderas, who blends the sage with the stolid. He’s a man who has some sort of lesson to impart, but he isn’t sure how to animate it beyond a basic embossing. The casting of one of the director’s most frequent collaborators lends a metatext, but at its core, it’s simply a strong performance.
But in Pain and Glory, memories say the most. Salvador’s past comes to fruition in what must be childhood memories of his young self’s rural life with his mother (Penelope Cruz). These are also the only scenes in the film to show attention to texture as compared to the emboldened modern life that makes up the bulk of the film. “You live like the ancient Christians used to!” a family friend says as she explores their underground, catacomb apartment.
The sounds of hands against walls and buckets of water get more attention here while Almodóvar and Alcaine, ever ones to juxtapose onscreen content, flirt with Salvador’s blossoming queerness against the backdrop of his more conservative upbringing. And whether present or past, this avatar never escapes the eye of the camera. The camera is a generator of memories here, and memories tell all. It’s when Almodóvar overindulges in more specific, self-referential foibles that Pain and Glory stumbles over its own feet, whether it’s out of obligation or an obsession with spelling out its singular meanings. It isn’t a consistent effort, but as it finds its own catharsis, it invites the viewer to join in. Chances are, they’ll find something in its universality too.