Pedro Almodóvar is not adverse to taking his audience to uncomfortable places. Often using comedy and melodrama, or his own unique mixture of the two, as a means in, he is so good at making movies about difficult subjects.
In his latest feature, Pain and Glory, he’s addressing perhaps the most taboo subject in modern film, aging. And this time, his style and storytelling is marked by its gentleness, affection and sincerity.
Guided by its protagonist, filmmaker Salvador Mallo (Antonio Banderas), the film begins with the director sitting motionless in a chair, submerged in a pool. In a moving close up, we see a surgical scar that runs nearly the length of his spine. This is a man suffering, within and without, replacing the hectic and physical work of filmmaking with the search for pain relief, whether in pools or with opioids. It is not, however, a woe-is-me tale of grumpy whining. Mallo hardly ever mentions his pain, but it is manifest in every motion and expression in Banderas’s award-winning performance. That is because his suffering seems to activate the revisiting and revitalization of childhood memories, particularly those involving he and his mother (Penelope Cruz).
For instance, that first image of the pained patient underwater transitions to a memory of his mother and her friends cleaning clothes by the river while he, the bright-eyed child, looks on, delighted by their comradery and singing. It’s a moment of connection.
The fact that this scene is evocative of a similar scene in Fellini’s 8 1/2, another film about a blocked director, points out that Pain and Glory is also a film about filmmaking. In particular, about the ability of art-making, not only to express the deepest and most thoughtful reflections of life, but also to connect — audience to artist, but also artist to himself.
By using frequent collaborators like Banderas (who wears Almodóvar’s clothes in the film) and Cruz, and filming in his own apartment, Almodóvar is opening up this film to an autobiographical reading, but not limiting it to that. Instead, it’s about how the experiences and relationships of one’s life is what shape and define us. This is experience and knowledge earned.
What is most appealing to me about this film — and I must say I found everything about it appealing — is the way it portrays the mature honesty and truth-telling one earns through old age. Not scenes of smacking down the young for their ignorance, or the hypocritical for their self-deceit, but the gentle surrendering to reality, to one’s addictions, to one’s mistakes and follies, to one’s vulnerabilities. And embracing and acting upon one’s strengths and talents.
This is a wise film made by an artist who has earned his wisdom through not only youthful and middle-age abandon, but also a life of reflection and thought. The last shot of Mallo, the boy, and Penelope Cruz, his mother, beautifully illustrates how for Almodóvar the filmmaker and his onscreen double — and for us, his dedicated audience over the years — his art, as well as his life, has led to this moment —- and this film.
This a movie to be, not just enjoyed, but cherished.