Pain and Glory
Italian maestro Federico Fellini once observed that “all art is autobiographical. The pearl is the oyster’s autobiography.”
“Pain and Glory” is Spanish director Pedro Almodóvar's pearl, a masterpiece even among his many beautiful films.
And, yes, both the pain and the glory are fully autobiographical in this touching memoir, lifted from his life, his films and his dreams – with help from his cinematic soul-mates Antonio Banderas and Penelope Cruz.
When filmmakers at the peak of their powers stop climbing and pause to look back down the mountain, pure art pours from their hearts.
Alfonso Cuarón's “Roma” was just such a film, the best of 2019.
And this year we have a second pearl: Almodovar’s “Pain and Glory.”
“Pain and Glory” follows the filmmaker Salvador Mallo (Banderas) from his childhood with a loving mom to his autumn years when the artistic fire starts dimming, as age and health takes an unforgiving toll. If you think you know how this will play out, you don’t know Pedro.
The pace of this story is its greatest virtue: a slow meandering stroll through memories. We begin in childhood and then follow the telescope back to the present. Back and forth we go, as the aging director struggles with health issues and dreams of his past.
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There are no special effects, no plot twists and no explosions. We just get a close up of an artist whose back is always in pain and who turns to heroin for relief.
The film is intimate, with more time paid to the relationships in his life than the films of his life. We meet loves found and loves lost.
Salvador sets out on a mission of forgiveness and reconciliation with Alberto, an actor who once starred in one of Salvador’s films. Alberto’s controversial interpretation of Salvador’s writing led to a permanent estrangement.
Salvador sets out to visit Alberto to mend that broken friendship – a touching but tense reunion, which oscillates forward like a sine curve.
We meet a young genius, Salvador at age 5. He’s tutoring adults while gobbling up books. When his devoted mom (Cruz) gets him a free scholarship to a Catholic school, young Salvador is furious. “I won’t be a priest!” he yells. No amount of persuading by his mom that not all students become priests can break his strong will.
That determination follows him through a successful much-hailed career. But we skip over those years.
But twilight has come, and with it the pain that now follows his glory. Helena professor and organist Joe Munzenrider described the 70s as aptly as anyone, as a decade of “patch, patch, patch.” And that’s what Salvador is experiencing: back surgery, medications, disabling headaches.
Into this darkness comes a razor’s edge of light. Alberto reminds Salvador of his many gifts, rekindling the dying flame inside him.
The last scene of “Pain and Glory” is exquisite, one of the most moving shots I’ve seen in decades. At least two Salvadors are present, as the past, present and future are colorfully united in one breathtaking time-traveling portrait.
Films like “Pain and Glory” keep me going to the movies every week. It’s like mining on Last Chance Gulch, with piles of dirt in my bucket at week’s end.
But when a sparkle of gold appears in our pan after hope seemed gone, the nugget is all we see and all we remember.