Pedro Almodóvar’s ‘Pain and Glory’ is tragic, beautiful, meta-movie

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Pedro Almodóvar’s “Pain and Glory” could have been so many things that audiences have already seen before. It could have been a movie about drugs, a movie about struggling artists or a love story. It could have been a Kenneth Anger-style movie that blurred the lines between sexuality and fascism. But it isn’t. 

“Pain and Glory” transcends genres and transcends topics. It brings to light just how diverse a director Almodóvar is. 

The film features a phenomenal performance by Antonio Banderas, who plays the role of the protagonist Salvador Mallo. His portrayal of a lonely uninspired creative as well as the relationships between him and the men in his life are the stars of the show. 

Banderas makes it evident that every stage of the character’s life is influenced by the men around him. There’s the strange mentor-mentee reversal between young, literate and incredibly sharp Salvador and older Eduardo (César Vicente), a local builder and Salvador’s very first student. And then there is the relationship between him and Alberto Crespo (Asier Etxeandia), who is cast as the lead role in Salvador’s film “Sabor” later in his life and essentially introduces him to his downfall that is heroin. Finally, and arguably most significantly, there is his love for Federico (Leonardo Sbaraglia), who inevitably seeps his way into all of the art Salvador creates throughout his journey as a filmmaker. 

In his film, Almodóvar makes a fascinating statement about an artist’s relationship to their environment by allowing the character of Salvador to constantly voice his opinions about his city. “I needed Madrid, and I needed you,” we see Salvador telling Federico about his process of making his first film, during their reunion in the latter half of the movie — gray-haired and long-bearded. This scene stands out because of its startlingly tangible emotion; the rapport that the two actors share in this scene is so graceful in its ease. They are playful and shy, while still being incredibly mature and in total control of what they choose to reveal to one another. 

Salvador makes no sound about his drug addiction, even though the issue is what first drew them apart, while Federico is already making plans to introduce Salvador to his sons, one of whom happens to be gay — a fact that does not seem to surprise Salvador. Looking at them meet decades after they last did, one cannot believe that they haven’t been a part of one another’s lives for as long as they had at that point in the film. Sbaraglia’s and Banderas’ performances shone in this scene in the dynamics they created for themselves on screen. 

The movie’s conclusion is meta in every sense of the word — it ends with the camera slowly moving back as it captures the final scene, revealing a movie set. The man behind the moving camera is disclosed to be Salvador, inspired and retelling a story from his childhood on film. He is free of the plummet he had been in and back to doing what he does best throughout the course of the movie.

Upon watching “Pain and Glory,” one cannot help but assume that, in a way, it is Almodóvar’s autobiography. But he disagrees, crediting his own reality to being “just a start” toward the ideation of the film and nothing more. Apart from being backgrounded by a remarkably powerful tone of nostalgia and longing, the perspective depicted in the film is deeply personal to an extent that only a filmmaker like Almodóvar could have achieved: The movie values movies. It values art and creation; it values the steep slump that comes with the lack of creative inspiration and the euphoric high that comes with creating something beautiful and powerful. 

Anoushka Agrawal covers culture and diversity, contact her at [email protected].