[Review] 'Pain and Glory': A Segment of a Life of Peace and Chaos
Pain and Glory (Spanish: Dolor y gloria) is a study of the dichotomies of life, specifically the life of Almodóvar’s semi-autobiographical Salvador Mallo (Antonio Banderas), an aging film director whose life unfolds before the audience’s eyes for the duration of the film.
Through the natural imagery of Salvador’s childhood, as presented in the soft white bed sheets Salvador’s mother, Jacinta (Penélope Cruz) balances upon the riverside greenery of rural Spain, Almodóvar overwhelms the screen with images of Salvador’s innocence. We see a young boy, reading in open air, surrounded by the lullaby of mothers’ voices and the hush of the flowing water, only to experience a complete tonal shift into a middle-aged Salvador’s life, saturated with starkly bright colours, contained within the confines of a meticulous, almost mechanically decorated apartment, and bombarded with silence. The setting is important in this film, with Salvador’s life, once lived in an open, cavernous, unconventional house with a large sunroof letting in endless waves of sunlight, transitioning to an enclosed, elevated apartment, representing one of the many juxtapositions in his life: youth and age.
Almodóvar introduces this older Salvador to us on the brink of a crisis. His 1980s hit film, Sabor, with which he has an unstable relationship, is resurfacing in his life. The lead actor of said film, Alberto (Asier Etxeandia) is coming with it. Alberto is a force of chaos in Salvador’s life and, weakened by the pain he experiences, Salvador succumbs to this chaos and chases the dragon with Alberto. Drugs become a symbol of Salvador’s spiral out of control. With each use of heroin, the audience can feel Salvador’s increasing hopelessness, and as such Almodóvar creates a strong sense of catharsis for the audience when Salvador finally seeks medical help, as he is a character with whom the director allows us to feel great empathy for throughout the film.
Not only does Alberto’s chaos bring a spiral into drugs, but also the resurfacing of an old relationship of Salvador’s. Alberto insists on performing a monologue of Salvador’s surrounding an old relationship with a man names ‘Marcelo’, which ended due to Marcelo’s addiction to heroin, an irony which Salvador himself is aware of, perhaps making his interaction with ‘Marcelo’ even more painful.
We watch the monologue with an understanding lost on its audience in the film; as we watch Alberto utter the tale of internal destruction in a past romance in Madrid, Almodóvar gives us the space to imagine Salvador narrating this story, to hear the words from his mouth and see the look in his eyes. But as the monologue is told through the mouthpiece of Alberto, we do not find ourselves watching the storyteller, but being in the position of the storyteller, a feat that retrospectively seems to foreshadow the final reveal. We step into the place of Salvador, who, in refusing to watch Alberto’s monologue, forces us to take his place in the audience instead and, through our understanding and empathy for Salvador, Almodóvar wants us to feel the emotions Salvador has denied himself by refusing to watch Alberto. After viewing the monologue, a sharp moment of emotion, we expect a break from this intensity. Instead, we are met with Salvador’s ‘Marcelo’, introducing himself to Alberto as Federico.
Although the film is expertly made, Banderas’ performance is what makes Pain and Glory stand
out. Banderas pours himself into the subtleties of Salvador, a character who expresses himself little to others, and therefore must be approached with the gentle emotion that Banderas perfectly portrays. Sbaraglia’s performance, although as a minor character, is similarly standout. Federico’s dialogue is minimal, forcing the audience instead to read his silence, creating an unspoken conversation between Salvador, a character who also feels more power in silence.
Federico is the last blow to Salvador’s desire to return to the past, as indicated to the repeated flashbacks to his childhood, and even recent memories such as his last days with his mother. Where Salvador is turning his back on the future in an attempt to clutch the last essences of his past, Federico represents the opposite. He tells Salvador that he now has a wife, children, and a new life, and this crushes Salvador. Perhaps this is what pushes him to seek help.
He finally sees that the past cannot save him from his pain, both physical and mental, as it has crumbled: his mother is dead, his love has moved on, an important figure from his childhood is untraceable. The only aspect of his past that he wishes to bury, Sabor, is returning, driving him forward. And so, he moves on from the past, something which incapacitated him for so long, as represented metaphorically through his frequent bursts of uncontrollable choking. The final scene solidifies this. Salvador has let go of his fears and is finally prepared to let other people in, in the only way he knows how: cinema.