REVIEW: Dolor y gloria [Pain & Glory] [2019]

Rating: 8 out of 10.
  • Rating: R | Runtime: 113 minutes
    Release Date: March 22nd, 2019 (Spain)
    Studio: Sony Pictures España / Sony Pictures Classics
    Director(s): Pedro Almodóvar
    Writer(s): Pedro Almodóvar

Compassionate and controlled.

A lot has been said about Pedro Almodóvar‘s latest film Dolor y gloria [Pain & Glory] being autofiction, but the director says it best himself when explaining that the character (Antonio Banderas‘ Salvador Mallo) “wasn’t me, but was inside me.” There’s power to that statement because it accepts the notion that everything an artist creates is born from within. So the comparisons are unavoidable as a rule regardless of whether or not you write your script to be about a director who then lives in a set based on your house and wears clothes straight from your wardrobe. Banderas’ hair even mimics Almodóvar’s own. Is this confirmation that the events on-screen are exact representations of moments in his life, though? No. How about the potent emotions wrought? Definitely.

It’s been over four years since Mallo has last directed a film and he’s starting to feel the listlessness and futility of his life without the work. No matter how much his mind wants to pick right back where he left off, however, his body is in no condition to comply. He’s depressed (his mother Jacinta as played by Julieta Serrano passed away), in excruciating pain (back surgery, migraines, and unprovoked choking lead the way), and uncertain of his place in the cinematic present. Those who were close (his agent Mercedes as played by Nora Navas) have been pushed away and those he’s loved are but memories revisited in the brief reprieves from insomnia that slumber provides. All Salvador has left are material possessions and ghosts.

The latter come into clearer focus after a local cinematheque programs a restoration of his early masterpiece Sabor with their series of Madrid-shot films. He watches it for the first time since the premiere and finds himself as moved by its story as audiences have been for decades. Salvador even admits the central performance by Alberto Crespo (Asier Etxeandia)—one he despised back then to the point of cutting the actor out of his life for hijacking a role he believed demanded a lighter touch—is perfect just the way it is. How much of that reversal is a result of his life shifting away from the joy of success into the very pit of despair Alberto drew his inspiration from? Suddenly the work takes on new meaning.

Addiction plays a huge role during past and present whether concerning drugs (their use by others and eventually him), work (filmmaking becoming an integral enough piece of his identity to leave a gaping hole via its absence), and desire (lust or love and their indelible effect either positively or negatively). As such we travel back and forth between them as events today trigger flashbacks of yesterday. We learn about the dynamic between Salvador (Asier Flores) and his mother (Penélope Cruz) while he grew up in a small village, the tragic romance shared as a young adult with Federico Delgado (Leonardo Sbaraglia), and the current anxiety-induced strain pressing upon tenuous relationships his lack of beside manner exacerbates. Reality and art intertwine until one becomes an extension of the other.

Things can therefore feel a bit disjointed because we’re watching chapters replayed behind closed eyes. Today’s Mallo is initially the connective tissue of what was rather than the lead character of what is now. His angst is what draws us back to see his life as a poor boy forced to go to seminary school in order to receive an education. This new screening of Sabor places Alberto back in his consciousness as well as heroin, fear, and the power the written word can command. It’s not until a staged monologue arrives and creates a nexus point for everything Salvador has experienced, released, and held onto tight to collide that Pain & Glory really solidifies as the heartbreaking struggle of getting back up after falling that it is.

It’s this realization that provides a truly cathartic atmosphere full of guilt and regrets that earn their chance to be reconciled after being harbored for so many years. There are some wonderful sequences like that of young Salvador and his illiterate pupil Eduardo (César Vicente) or older Salvador and his aged mother that tug on heartstrings and/or reveal the complex feelings that dictate our actions whether we’re fully aware of their control or not. Nothing, however, is more memorable than a passage of in-film meta narrative pitting Mallo, Alberto, and Federico together to reminisce, create anew, and put to bed a shared (albeit peripherally so) history between them. The minute Federico enters the film until his exit could win awards as a short all its own.

This is true because of what Almodóvar imbues in the text and the phenomenal lead performance given by Banderas—the auteur’s early career muse returned. Mallo’s descent into easy fixes ultimately risks numbing him to the type of pain we aspire to keep. While he desperately needs help for his body, the “this is your life” moments that ended in tragedy had too lasting an effect on his career and happiness to erase in the process. Their inherent agony reminds him of the original beauty his raw emotion had forgotten via an imperfect coping mechanism. Salvador says he writes to excise pieces of himself too difficult to face when it actually renders him vulnerable enough to finally revisit them and perhaps embrace the fondness they still possess.

[1] Left to Right: Antonio Banderas as Salvador, Nora Navas as Mercedes
© El Deseo. Photo by Manolo Pavón. Courtesy Sony Pictures Classics.
[2] Left to Right: Penélope Cruz Jacinta (young), Asier Flores as Salvador (kid)
© El Deseo. Photo by Manolo Pavón. Courtesy Sony Pictures Classics.
[3] Left to Right: Asier Etxeandía as Alberto, Antonio Banderas as Salvador
© El Deseo. Photo by Manolo Pavón. Courtesy Sony Pictures Classics.

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