Movie Review: 'Pain and Glory'

Directed by: Pedro Almodóvar
Starring: Antonio Banderas, Asier Etxeandia, Penélope Cruz, Leonardo Sbaraglia
Rated R
113 minutes

In the opening scene of “Pain and Glory,” Pedro Almodóvar’s (“Volver”) newest film, a group of women are washing sheets in a river and singing while a young boy, the son of one of the women, plays with a stick nearby. The scene feels generic at first, a dull image intended to announce the movie’s slice-of-life realism, but it changes quickly into something almost surreal as the women begin to sing with more concentrated effort. They harmonize, keep a strict rhythm; each one knows her part and delivers it not just correctly, but with passion. It suddenly feels less casual and more like a professional performance transplanted to their bucolic surroundings.

Leonardo Sbaraglia and Antonio Banderas in a scene from “Pain and Glory." (Courtesy photo)

The moment, in its deceptive simplicity, sets up the movie to follow. The young boy grows up to become an internationally acclaimed filmmaker, Salvador Mallo (Antonio Banderas, “The Skin I Live In”), beset throughout his life by a laundry list of chronic illnesses. These ailments, both physical and mental, encroach upon his daily life, making it difficult to do even the simplest tasks. Now in middle age and suffering from especially intense back pains that have left him unable to work, Salvador is resigned to an unwanted retirement, mixing up prescription drug cocktails and languishing in his bitter solitude. But then a retrospective of one of his early films reconnects him with an actor he hasn’t seen in decades, Alberto Crespo (Asier Etxeandia, “Velvet”), a reunion that sets in motion a series of reckonings for Salvador—with Albert, with his mother, with his former lover, and with his own body.

Unfolding in a mix of present-day scenes and flashbacks, “Pain and Glory” lacks a main plot line to build the story up, instead pushing Salvador inward and outward, creating tension and momentum out of the natural progression of his personal relationships. Accordingly, the movie boasts few surprises, but rather dives deeply into the most important conversations between close friends and lovers on the most important days of their lives. One moment Salvador is talking with a lover he hasn’t seen since the ’80s, discovering with visible disappointment that the other man now has a family; in another moment, he is agreeing reluctantly to let Alberto stage a one-man show about his life. In flashbacks, he recalls his childhood, the underground home he lived in with his mother, Jacinta (Penélope Cruz, “Everybody Knows”), and the neighbor who did handiwork for them and unwittingly awakened a sexual longing in Salvador; in the present day, he visits the doctor, undergoes a CAT scan, takes his pills.

These threads feel at once distinct and unified, collectively illustrating Salvador’s perspective on life from his current position, one which is difficult for him to bear. In its darker moments, the movie focuses our attention on the intense melancholy and depression that Salvador suffers from as a result of the constant pain in his body. He confesses to having failed his mother and gets himself addicted to heroin; he contemplates suicide.

Pedro Almodóvar and Antonio Banderas expertly navigate these low points, refusing to let Salvador turn into a tragically fated character. With all the vivid color palettes, bright music choices, and exquisitely modern set design that have marked his prior films, Almodóvar builds a vibrant world in which Salvador comes up against relentless obstacles but also finds solace and the strength to heal. Banderas’s performance, meanwhile, is grim and pained, but ultimately refreshing, conveying the shift in a man who confronts his dark night of the soul and commits himself to persevering through it.

Much like its opening scene, the final scene of “Pain and Glory” subverts our expectations again, providing an abrupt conclusion that, despite its brevity, changes our perception of what we know and have already seen of Salvador. It’s the movie’s one moment of true surprise, and its weight is profound. The movie’s depictions of suffering and internal torment are sympathetic from the beginning, but the ending is astonishing in its humanity, granting Salvador the chance not just to overcome his obstacles, but to grow because of them. Pain and glory invariably come from and feed off each other, Almodóvar suggests; the genius of “Pain and Glory” is its perfect balance of the two

  Danny Eisenberg, a Bromfield graduate, lives and works in Denver, Colorado.

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