Were you looking for such a thing, you’d be hard-pressed to find a more humanizing film than Pedro Almodóvar’s latest little miracle. The Spanish director/writer’s Pain and Glory is a story about an artist, who suffers, and remembers, and relives. This tale is only somewhat the story of people in general, though it’s easy and quite wrenching to project ourselves onto the life of Salvador Mallo (Antonio Banderas), a veteran film director afflicted by several physical maladies. His bodily decline brings him great pain, physical and mental. Of course he can’t work, can’t create, in this deteriorating state. He spends his days mostly prostrate in bed, having gobbled a vast regimen of pills and yogurts, and just recently has dabbled in heroin.
Mallo’s dope daze propels him into recollections of his past, his childhood in the ’60s, when he emigrated with his parents to a village in Valencia (where the family lived in a cave — a painted one with skylights, but still, a cave), his overwhelming first sexual desire, his first adult love in the Madrid of the ’80s and the still festering pain of the demise of that intense love; he recalls his early discovery of cinema, when films were projected on a whitewashed wall, in the open air — the cinema of Salvador’s childhood smells like pee (the children urinated behind that wall), jasmine and summer breeze. And Salvador contemplates his current thudding dull stare into nothingness, a drab place that denies him the will or the physical ability to make films.
Pain and Glory is a lot of things, primarily a rumination on the nature of creation, how invariably it interweaves with the fabric of our own knotty lives and is as such a necessarily hurtful evaluation of the throbbing loves and beliefs that feed that creativity with weight and, with hope, transcendence. Via heroin (at first), Mallo flashes vividly back to his past and calls up things that he’d tried to suppress but which now seem crucial to his understanding of himself and his creativity. Within this experience he discovers the urgent necessity of writing about it, telling himself about it — he writes about his past to forget it, to get past it, if only to establish that all of it truly meant something.
Pain and Glory presents Almodovar’s warm, rounded intellectualism at its specialized best. Conceptually though not emotionally, it aligns with Fellini’s Intervista, a past-present back ’n’ forth in which a director mentally mingles his filmic creations and his own real life, and is forced (or chooses) to question the values of each and, a little begrudgingly in Fellini’s case, accepts that his reality is a muddy melange of both. Almodóvar says that Pain and Glory is an “unintentional” third part of a trilogy that has taken 32 years to complete, the first two parts of which are Law of Desire and Bad Education. Each part features male protagonists who are film directors, and the concept of cinematic “fiction” is a core element of the stories. Pain and Glory examines fiction (created reality) juxtaposed with the reality of actual experiences and memories. Of course, he says, created realities and our memories of lived experiences are not just twins, and, he says, Pain and Glory is not autobiographical, though his real memories created fertile grounds for new fictions. Thematically, the heartbeat of Almodóvar’s trilogy, as with his entire catalog of films, is the deep, deep wounds of desire.
Mello’s two love stories: The first is triggered by the memory of sensitive 9-year-Salvador’s (Asier Flores) sighting of his family’s handyman Eduardo (César Vicente) washing off his day’s dust; the boy’s mother Jacinta (Penélope Cruz) returns home to find the boy lying feverish on the bed, having fainted at the overwhelming sight of Eduardo naked. The second love story takes place at the height of the ’80s, when the country was celebrating the explosion of freedom that came with democracy; Mello’s rather torrid love affair with another young man is a story Salvador writes so as to forget about it; it still daggers his heart.
This love story ends up transformed into a monologue, performed by Alberto Crespo (Asier Etxeandia), whom Mello contacts after an acrimonious separation of 32 years; longtime junkie Crespo supplies him with heroin, and Mello cedes his authorship to Crespo, because he doesn’t want to be recognized by his story. Crespo/Mello’s monologue is titled The Addiction and Crespo performs it in front of a bare, white screen, which represents Mello’s life: his early cinema thrills, the journeys with his lover to escape from Madrid and from heroin, and what all it was that made him a writer and filmmaker.
I have not been impressed with acting this much since witnessing the late Pina Pellicer in Marlon Brando’s 1961 One-Eyed Jacks. In it, Pellicer “plays” a young Mexican peasant who falls for the duplicitous scoundrel Brando and is ultimately left bereft; it is said that what we saw onscreen in that film mirrored what was actually going on in Pellicer and Brando’s real lives. The point is that we see Pellicer really suffering, and it is as if she was simply not acting — because she likely wasn’t. In his extraordinarily subtle non-acting, Antonio Banderas achieves something similar, a miraculous lack of self-consciousness — in innumerable close-ups, the camera is simply not there. He brings to Pain and Glory a genuinely touching vulnerability, a recognizable distant burning need and little wisps of hope. This is not an acting face; it is the face of a human being, perhaps a little bit like us.