WHAT IT'S ABOUT:
Salvador Mallo is a highly acclaimed film director who, in advanced middle age, is suffering from debilitating bodily pain and a depressing realisation that his best days may well be behind him. When he reconnects with a passionate actor with whom he had a falling out decades ago, Salvador finds a new, albeit perhaps temporary lease on life, even as he struggles to come to terms with his youth as a poor child and the only son of an absent father and tough-as-nails mother.
WHAT WE THOUGHT:
Pedro Almodovar isn’t just the very rare “foreign language” film director whose films actually get released to cinemas in this country, he is also known as one of the very best ever Spanish-language directors whose best films tend to be passionate, provocative, sexually charged, often more than slightly deranged, and almost never less than deeply personal. Pain and Glory (not to be confused with the Michael Bay film, Pain and Gain, which is a whole different kind of beast) may easily be one of Almodovar’s most personal films to date, but it’s also surprisingly polite and well-behaved. And that is not to its benefit.
This slow, often indulgent meditation on the creative process and the way one’s past and present experiences shape one’s art seldom puts a foot wrong. It is beautifully acted, handsomely assembled, sensuous and frequently compelling. Considering just well-trod the ground covered by the “Portrait of an Artist as a Young (and Old) Man” genre is, however, it’s surprising to see how little new Almodovar brings to the table with Pain and Glory. And, for a filmmaker known for being something of an agent provocateur, Almodovar seems reluctant to really move his audience with a film that is just too polite, too naval-gazing and too measured by half.
Perhaps that explains why I was left so emotionally cold by the whole experience of watching Pain and Glory. After all, there’s little here that shouldn’t be deeply moving. The film is an undeniably personal and intimate work of art about a subject of which I personally have plenty of interest. Most paradoxically, Almadovar’s knack for imbuing his films with a sensuous, almost tactile sense of (slightly) heightened reality is not, in fact missing here, so how on earth does it manage to feel emotionally distant at the same time?
This is a film that I should be praising to high heaven. So many of its constituent parts suggest a 5-star classic and a shoo-in for one of the year’s very best films. If absolutely nothing else, it features an absolutely stunning, career-best performance by Antonio Banderas as our quite literally tortured artist. It’s a quiet and contained performance, but he conveys so much by doing so little, and the way he portrays a brittle middle-aged man in the grips of constant, chronic pain is so utterly on-point that watching him here, it’s hard to believe he made his name (in English-speaking markets, at least) playing suave, heroic and almost impossibly masculine leading men in films like Desperado, Assassins and a couple of Zorro movies.
And yet, and yet... the film as a whole just refuses to coalesce into something that I can truly embrace. Admire, certainly, but even reservedly love? Unfortunately, not.
Plus, there’s also the matter that no matter how well it’s constituent parts are handled, as an overall statement about the creative process, it is just a bit rote. Yes, even with all the broken relationships, heroin use (and other artistically-sanctioned bad behaviour), early sexual awakening, and Almodovar’s patented mommy issues. Even Penelope Cruz’s fiery performance as young Salvador’s mother doesn’t stop her character from feeling just a bit too familiar.
For my money, the quick thirty-second gag that ends Woody Allen’s Annie Hall says about as much about the interplay between life and art as the entirety of Pain and Glory. This is obviously hardly fair as that quick gag is based on the previous ninety minutes of what is hands-down one of the greatest films ever made, but it does highlight why, despite its many virtues, Pain and Glory just can’t be considered to be among the very best work of an original like Almodovar.
This doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t go see it, of course. Emotionally, your mileage may vary considerably from mine, and any even halfway decent Almodovar is worth checking out. I just wish I was more enthusiastic about it.