For those who love to write, writing is therapeutic. It allows us a release of our innermost thoughts — thoughts that may be hard to verbalize, unspoken thoughts waiting to be expressed. Writing opens a window so those thoughts can be shared.
We all remember that moment we discovered the wonders of cinema, that first time our parents took us to a movie, watching images projected onto a shimmering screen,. Those first memories are permanently imprinted in the minds of every true movie lover. Some of us even remember the smell of the theater …
“The cinema of my childhood smells of piss, of jasmine, and of the summer breeze.” In “Pain and Glory,” we meet Salvador Mallo (Antonio Banderas), an aging film director. We first see him submerged in a poo, hovering stationary, as if preserved in a jar. Pedro Almodovar focuses in on Salvador and pans up a scar on his chest, from an operation. He suffers from chronic pain, both physical (due to his age) and mental (due to his childhood). When he learns that a film he made over thirty years ago is being resurrected and re-released, Salvador is forced to reflect on his past.
Plaintive clarinets in Alberto Iglesias’ score whisk us back in time to the ’60s. We now see Salvador as a young boy, on a river’s edge, as his mother Jacinta (Penelope Cruz) and her friends wash linens and sing folk songs.
Though here they are separated by a generation — as a mother in the past and a son in the present — there is endless delight in seeing Cruz and Banderas work together with Almodovar again. In each of these flashbacks, Cruz is radiant. Soon she is faced with struggle and hardship and must flee for the village of Paterna to live in a cave. Her wardrobe is simple, her hair is a mess, and she is devoid of makeup, yet her beauty is impossible to disguise. It’s the beauty of a mother whose selflessness is virtually angelic, a mother who only wants the best for her son — so much so that she makes the sacrifice of sending him away to a seminary, the only place he can get an education and not grow up illiterate like most of the residents of Paterna.
Salvador is a curious child who develops keen skills in observing the people around him. This ability to channel his sensitivity will serve him well as a writer, but it perhaps also contributes to his bouts with depression, which so many suffer in silence. But for Salvador, even the refuge of silence is disturbed by tinnitus — one of various health issues that plague his spine, his muscles, his lungs. He sometimes chokes uncontrollably, unable to breathe. Almodovar deploys the magic of an animated anatomy montage to summarize and illustrate all that is wrong with the body of his protagonist.
Salvador, once a renowned film director, no longer feels able to create. His heyday in the ’80s was celebrated, but he now lives in isolation. In trademark Almodovar fashion. his apartment is splashed with vivid color: red, art, blues, and modern — a stark contrast to the faded desaturation of Salvador’s mind and moods. Production designer Antxon Gomez has lined the bookshelves behind Salvador’s desk with volumes on designers and artisans, on Gaudi and other architects. It’s a library of creative geniuses assembled as a jury to stand in solemn judgement to the visual mastery Salvador once had but can no longer summon.
On his desktop lies a story that Salvador wrote, called “Addicion” (“The Addiction”), which chronicles Salvador’s life in the 80s in Madrid. Alberto Crespo, an actor who long ago starred in Salvador’s movie, discovers the story and adapts it as a theater monologue. Reading the tale, he voices aloud a narrative of Salvador’s life, in a time when his passions were still filled with fiery spirit, outlining the arc of sorrow and joy that have defined his path of pain and glory.
When Salvador goes to hear Crespo perform the monologue, it brings to life his memories of the love story that he had written, the love story between Salvador and Frederico. There’s yet another love story to be told in the film, one that needs to be seen to be experienced and one that shouldn’t be spoiled here, except to say that it’s a beautiful discovery of desire and unrealized dreams.
Almodovar knows Banderas and Cruz so well, it’s as if the three of them are siblings. The love they share is intensely evident, and the love this director feels for his female characters soaks the screen, as any Almodovar fan knows. When Salvador flashes back to memories of his mother, as she nears the end of her life, the performance by Julieta Serrano as the older Jacinta is warm and funny, and the scenes are so beautifully rich. Banderas’ Salvador is one of the best characters in Almodovar’s catalog, diving into dark terrain as a tormented soul whose creativity has been lost, revealing each layer to the complexity of his character with a searing performance. The mental pain and emotional torment that Banderas brings to this role is utterly engrossing as he faces up to ghosts of his past. It’s riveting.
As a lifelong Almodovar fan, “Pain and Glory” ranks for me as one of his best, and it stands as one of the best films of the year. The relationship between Mallo and Banderas will stay with you. Cruz’s melody sung to her young son, her voice so soothing, will also stay with you. The vivid visuals will linger like delicious flavors.
José Luis Alcaine’s cinematography is a joy to behold. In a film packed with wall-to-wall beauty, the ending is a mind-searing image. Almodovar is a master of that effect, the emotional impact of vivid color. I shall say no more, but the details in this shot and throughout the film are a reminder that this is a director who knows how to guide our eyes where they need to be, to what we need to see. It’s perfection. From the first frame to the last, this is classic Almodovar. As a masterclass in ways to convey profound meaning through the nuance of light and color, it’s glorious. As an intricate study of reflection and regret, companionship and bliss, “Pain and Glory” is simply stunning.
“Pain and Glory” is currently playing at the New York Film Festival and will be released in theaters on October 4.