Throughout the years, the decades, we’ve assisted to the growth of a young, queer punk outsider, copycating the early John Waters work, into one of the most accomplished masters of visual – and spoken – storytelling the world has ever seen. Make no mistake: I am not a Pedro Almodóvar fan, at all, at least of his real-life persona (more on that, later). Neither Antonio Banderas or Penélope Cruz rank among my favorite spanish performers. But “Pain & Glory” is undisputably, the masterpiece of a lifetime, as summarized in its final shot, which probably is, one of the best of film history (and that’s saying a lot, and I will discussed on the spoilery part of the review).
The plot is confident… while a film director in creative crises, and assaulted by the various pains of body and soul, reconnects with an actor from his early films, thanks to a tribute being made for the film they made together 30 years before, on a parallel edit, memories from the childhood at a village in La Mancha (of course, Almodóvar’s homeland) come back again and again. The film is undeniably, autobiographical, and probably the only fault, is the positive – if flawed – look that Almodóvar has on his very own persona, indulgent and basically softer than it should be.
Banderas is, simply outstanding in this role. He’s been knowing Pedro Almodóvar for 40 years, they’re besties, and also owes 70% of his career to him and the international spotlight his work received. One can only guess who’s who in real life, out of the film characters… who was a drug addict – and still is. Who was Almodóvar’s romance back then. The film referenced, is more than obviously, one of Almodóvar’s masterpieces, “Law of Desire” and the very first Banderas performance that could be considered Oscar worthy (he steals the whole film, with passion), and it is an irony of destiny, that a film about that film’s production, may take him to his long awaited first Oscar nomination (as he has pointed out, after winning Cannes’ Best Actor, he’s been nominated for almost anything but Oscar, yet never won anything in competition, till this year).
Penélope Cruz, Julieta Serrano, Asier Etxeandía and Leonardo Sbaraglia complete the central core of the film characters, out of the more known performers, but also newcomers César Vicente and Asier Flores round this core, with a collaboration of “All about my mother”‘s Cecilia Roth. All of them rank from the competent to the outstanding (Cruz, Etxeandía) but neither steals the flame of Banderas’ completely nailed walk of tightrope between creating a character and bringing out some of Almodóvar’s most characteristic gestures, reminding the audience it’s him that we’re talking about, but not “really him”. Banderas feel natural, humble, lets his costars breathe and create, and hasn’t been this good in a long, long time. As he pointed out, he’s reborn after his heart scare a couple of years ago, making him go back to embrace more dramatic and challenging roles, away from action and popcorn flicks. That’s good news for all film lovers, as he’s a capable actor that has been wasted for so long.
But back to why this film is so outstanding… SPOILERS from now on.
Almodóvar cleverly stablishes a subtle separation between past (Salvador’s childhood in La Mancha) and present (as an adult in creative crises). The past is shown in naturalistic light and settings, strong nature, while present is mostly comprised of urban environment, predominantly interiors… that are quite obviously sets, with a clear intention to make it feel more “fake” than the nature of the past… the reds of the present are so bright as the whites from the past. He’s purpousingly making you feel that reality is the past, while the present is just kind of fake, as urban life vs. the more naturalistic, simple country life. This yuxtaposition comes again and again, specially when Salvador talks with his mother in the final scenes of the film… nostalgy explodes all over the audience, which yearns of a simple past as Salvador’s while not watering down how hard that life was, versus the commodities of the urban present – specially health-wise. That is slowly building upon the film’s mesmerizing, groundbreaking, final shot. Almodóvar patiently builds the whole film into crash collision course with that.
There are three moments that Almodóvar reaches filmmaking legend status in this film (talking only after one viewing… probably I could increase them after repeated ones).
The phone conversation between drugged up Banderas and Etxeandía on one side, and the audience at the filmotheque on the other side… the comedy, drama, depth is completely balanced, each delivered line and gesture building into a mix of emotions that becomes basically an extremely enjoyable rollercoaster. Banderas is specially sublime delivering his performance here.
The bath and then drawing scene of the past. Audience holds its breath with the shadow of seduction and possible pedophilia involved. The resolution is always walking the tightrope and ends in a naturalistc and satisfying way. Pedophilia is also pending on the film on an earlier sequence involving priests, but Almodóvar cleverly skips the issue while subconsciously reminding you, he touched that issue in “Bad Education” which is the middle chapter of his autobiographical trilogy, started with “Law of Desire” which he uses as reference in “Pain and Glory”.
Finally, that final shot. Wow. Before it comes, it has already been stablished when Penélope Cruz’s character has to spend the night at a train station with young Salvador, and also the final sequence before this shot, is older Salvador explaining that he knows, finally, what his next film will be… so then, this shot enter and we see Cruz’s character caressing young Salvador, and we think it is a flashback… then gently, the camera draws back and expands the frame to reveal the crew around the shot and that what we always thought it was the past, it was actually the future and that Almodóvar reconciles past, present and future with just one subtle camera movement, exceptional lighting and composition. Exquisite, and with nothing else to add, because it is not required, the film ends, with my jaw dropped, thinking how long has he run from those early punk days of queer cinema, to become one of the biggest visual and writting masters of film history.