REVIEW: Pain and Glory

Posted by Matthew Thornton on Wednesday, January 29, 2020

Director: Pedro Almodóvar
Writers: Pedro Almodóvar
Starring: Antonio Banderas, Asier Etxeandia, Leonardo Sbaraglia
Runtime: 113 mins
MPAA Rating: R

      I have never really considered Antonio Banderas in the upper echelon of actors. To be honest, I kind of forgot he existed; the last movie I remember seeing his name attached to an American movie was the last entry in the washed-up action-hero Expendables franchise. However, paired with accomplished Spanish writer and director Pedro Almodóvar who previously directed Banderas in a slew of films in the 1980s and, most recently, in The Skin I Live In (2011), Banderas has reached his career peak. I am completely unfamiliar with Almodóvar’s filmography and background, but I have read that this film is loosely based on his own life: the memories and experiences personal to him. When filmmakers craft stories that germinate from a personal place, they tend to put an elevated level of effort and care into every aspect of the production, and the resulting presentations rarely feel hollow. Pain and Glory is no exception.

      In the very first scene, the film blankly introduces a middle-aged man eyes-closed and submerged in a pool before switching angles to reveal a lengthy scar running down the middle of his back. Such a simple introduction quietly and efficiently sets the stage for the forthcoming character study. You quickly learn that this man is noted director Salvador Mallo (Antonio Banderas), and that, far past his career’s peak, he is deeply struggling at this juncture of his life. When he is given the opportunity to speak at the premier of the re-release of one of his films, he reconnects with the film’s lead actor Alberto Crespo (Asier Etxeandia) despite the fact that they have not spoken in three decades due to a quarrel during the production. Intercut with this present-day narrative are flashbacks to Salvador’s childhood where you see him as a precocious child (Asier Flores) under the care of his mother Jacinta (Penelope Cruz) who remains resolute in wanting a better life for her son despite the family’s impecunious circumstances. From this knowledge of past and present, you come to understand that the opening shot is a perfect summary of a man who has had to soak in the personal struggles, physical pain, and mental anguish built up over a lifetime of experiences and relationships, yet he is strangely at peace.

      The story is a dissection and reconstruction of an unfulfilled man harboring an abundance of pain and lacking closure in numerous relationships as he goes down a road towards catharsis. In a multitude of ways, this film feels like a personal therapeutic exercise in coming to peace with the summation of your life as it currently stands. Almodóvar seems to be putting his own life’s struggles out there, and, naturally, the care and appreciation he has put into the script and direction is clearly evident. Ultimately, this film is about a man coming to peace with who he is and attempting to lay down the burdens that trouble his psyche. Antonio Banderas is brilliant as the soft-spoken, emotionally-troubled Salvador who just seems tired of life; at the same time, Banderas is able to subtly articulate the character’s more latent characteristics such as Salvador’s thoughtfulness, intelligence, and creativity which you know are there from seeing the character as a child. Flashbacks and voiceover, two of the most overused and improperly-used plot devices in screenwriting, serve a cohesive purpose in the film’s structure and development, paving the way for a meta spin that Almodóvar cleverly puts on the entire presentation. Visually, every scene is defined by strong usage of bold colors to distinguish the elements composing each shot. The profusion of bright contrasting colors is a bit more than typical Spanish artistry as Almodóvar appears to color-code specific moods and states of mind at several points within the story. A vividly animated sequence introducing Salvador’s connection to every major academic subject in life stands out because of how off-the-wall it is compared to the rest of the visual presentation. Almodóvar paints the screen with this film’s frames, and much of the imagery is etched in my memory.

      Everything in this movie is extraordinarily heartfelt. Consequently, Pain and Glory is a movie that needs to be felt, and any further explanation would be inadequate. The way in which it weaves honest reflections on life within the context of filmmaking reminds me of Federico Fellini’s (1963), which is never a bad thing to say the least. Some moments of goofiness and harsh transitions aside, I cannot think of anything I disliked about the presentation. Antonio Banderas gives a career-defining performance, and, despite having seen none of his other works, I venture to guess that Pain and Glory is among Almodóvar’s best films. If you enjoy honest and passionate character studies, there is not a better choice for you from 2019.

RATING: ★★★★

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