Meandering through memory and desires, Almodóvar’s 21st feature is an introspection on the pains of mortality

Savina Petkova on Pedro Almodóvar’s ‘Pain and Glory’ (2019)

What a fickle thing memory is. How impatiently images and smells attach themselves to a certain moment in time that seems irretrievably lost. Does it not fall on cinema, the seventh art, the opportunity of retrieving a time forever lost, be it in old surviving footage, or in conjuring up a world drenched in empathy from screen to spectator’s eye? As a temporary relief from the flow of time, cinema’s audiovisual play represents above all, one’s attempt to overcome her own mortality. While abstractly formulated statements such as the above vaguely touch upon the actual experience of watching a film as entering someone else’s memories, the sticky glue of visuals, arduous performance, and aural sublimity of Pain and Glory / Dolor y gloria bestow upon the Spanish director a thorny crown.

Already labelled as “deeply personal”, a “self-portrait” and so the synonyms go, Pain and Glory has been celebrated by critics for its metatextual qualities and the supposed fusion between character Salvador Mallo (Antonio Banderas), a well-loved director that has tipped his peak, and Almodóvar himself. It certainly doesn’t help that Salvador shares a similar background story as his creator, nor the fact that the director lent his own apartment for the shoot. However, the film offers much more than a self-indulgent introspection, it presents a (personal, yes) world where pain is the past and the past is pain. Banderas is outstanding in portraying Mallo’s strengths and weaknesses, keeping traumas and health conditions at bay, while his body movements and gestural levity shape a character of neuroses and turmoil, yet one that threads gently in the worlds of past and present. Arresting the narrative, long sequences hijack the tasteless life of ageing, returning Salvador to his childhood, a time and space well guarded by Oedipal desires and repressive guilt. The film’s opening lingers way after its runtime is over, like that one lovelorn song in a foreign language that has brought you to tears.

Paralleling the childhood experience of clothes-washing upon a riverbank with a meditative pool dive, the film relies on elemental metaphors, bridging past and present, in this case: water. As young Salvador (Asier Flores) muses over his mother (Penélope Cruz) and her friends, their collective singing turns the chore into a celebration of life, almost like an enchantment (Cruz teams up with young Catalan neo flamenco singer Rosalía here). “A tu vera, siempre a la verita tuya…”, the chant goes on, as high pitched voices fill the screen and, it seems, the whole world — river, woods, the universal power of women’s voice greets us at the film’s door. “By your side, always by your side”, the translation goes, and the sense of a constant companion proves to be more like melancholy than a human relation. Quarrels have long separated Salvador from his closest ally, Alberto Crespo (played by hunky Asier Etxeandia, whose line “I’m an actor, I suffer well” is a winner), and in the attempts of rekindling that companionship, the past becomes more solid than ephemeral. Its ghosts are flesh and blood and it’s only through art, as the film shows, that one can channel turmoils and experience deliverance. For most of the film, Salvador Mallo is stuck in a creative block and the only way he’d feel connected to the world of the living would be through his corporeal pains.

The body as failing, the body is flawed, and yet Almodóvar brings us closer to one particular body in an ironically estranged way. One interlude, narrated by Salvador himself, shows a succession of tableaux and short animations, exemplifying his physical pain, illnesses, and conditions, their origins and effects. As a short lesson in Salvador Mallo’s biology, the film makes a claim for metatextuality, condensing its own narrative in a distanced, scientific manner. We are, as it seems, being prepared not to expect too much of a positive turnout for the “Glory” part of the title. It’s all Pain, Pain, Pain.

Contrasting creased faces (of Salvador, his lovers, his friends, and his mother) with the glossy, vibrant decor in the background of almost every sequence, Almodóvar does not arrive at a verdict against mortality and decline. On the contrary, Pain and Glory is vibrant and, at times, heart-wrenching with its reenactment of remembrance (“an act of recollection”, nicely phrased by Leonardo Goi in his review).

However, if we put aside the fact that every road leads to the mother, which makes the film surrender to Oedipal fixations, there is something quintessentially poetic in the centre of its labyrinth of memory. As Salvador likens his first cinema experiences of summer nights with whitewashed walls that sheltered magical projections, his mother seemed preoccupied with whitewashing the walls of their cave-like home in a similar way. Such a material link between homeliness and cinema manifests a rather self-evident value that we, as moviegoers, find in the comfort of a film, where the pain is no more.

Pain and Glory is in cinemas now.

Savina Petkova

By Savina Petkova

Savina Petkova is a PhD student at King’s College London and a regular contributor for Electric Ghost Magazine. She earned her Masters in Film Studies at University College London and has written for MUBI Notebook, Photogénie, Girls on Tops, Screen Queens, Moving Image Artists Journal, and other publications.