Pain and Glory review: a heart-wrenching story of love and loss

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In Pain and Glory, an aging and ill film director (Antonio Banderas) reflects on the choices he’s made in life. Reunited with an actor (Asier Etxeandia) from his past, as well as memories of his mother (Penèlope Cruz), he embarks on a new chapter.

There’s more pain than glory in director Pedro Almodóvar’s 21st film, a beautiful, reflective picture that has some calling it his 20 ½. Like Fellini’s 8 ½, Pain and Glory follows a character echoing the director, played by a frequent collaborator – Antonio Banderas fully equipped with Almodóvar’s signature electrified hair – struggling with creative block, whilst ruminating on past loves, and ignoring the pleas of those around him to return to work. That is perhaps were the similarities end (although there’s a little nod to Fellini’s film in the form of a poster on a wall), as I can’t recall Marcello Mastroianni smoking quite so much heroin.

On that, Pain and Glory has been called an autobiography, but as Almodóvar himself has stated: “This is not a biopic of me, not even a portrait… You can’t take this film literally, but I have myself been down all those paths trodden by the character… and I know them all in depth.” So, it seems, he’s serving up a slice of auto-fiction. He and his Banderas counterpart share the same roots, but they grow in different directions.

Director Salvador Mallo (Banderas) is no longer willing, or able, to make films. The physical pain his extensive list of ailments have caused him reduce him to merely trying to live. He shuffles the corridors of his beautiful art-filled apartment, crushing prescription pills into drinks, frequently choking on nothing at all, and lying in migraine induced darkness. When he hears, via a chance encounter with an actress (a cameo by Almodóvar favourite, Cecilia Roth, All About My Mother), that Alberto Crespo (Asier Etxeandia), the lead actor in a film of his that is now a cult classic, is back in Madrid after years away, he decides to seek him out. As they haven’t spoken in 30 years following a momentous fallout over the way Alberto portrayed the character Salvador had written for him, their meeting is at first tense. But a combination of herbal tea and heroin – Alberto is a functioning addict, and this, it transpires, was the catalyst for the fall out – soon relax the mood, especially when Salvador decides to join his old friend, for the first time, in “chasing the dragon”. The dreamlike effects of the drug induce memories of his childhood in rural Spain, in particular, those with his devoted mother (Penèlope Cruz).

Mothers are central to almost all of Almodóvar’s films, and although this story also deals with lost love, the effects of addiction, and a great deal of physical pain, it’s Salvador’s relationship to his mum that is the heartbeat. It’s a mixture of guilt and love that most children, no matter their age, will recognise when you no longer have a parent to argue back with.

The memories in this film are luminous, the vividness with which the director recalls them is palpable, and in complete opposite to the darkness the older Salvador is grappling with. The sun-drenched scenes from his childhood are evocative, and full of beginnings. It’s not all rosy, but the beauty of the cinematography, and the intensity of the colour, could trick your brain into believing otherwise. Tonally, Pain and Glory is closer to Almodóvar’s previous film Julieta, the baroque-ness of most of his earlier work is gone, and the mood is considerably more sombre, although flashes of snort-inducing comedy remain.

This film is also about memory as a source of inspiration, being able to say the things you wish you’d said to those you loved, and Spanish actors, who are mostly so-so in English language films, being absolutely phenomenal when in their native tongue. Banderas is so, so great in this film. Physically he’s barely doing anything, and yet when he closes half an eyelid you implicitly understand all the pain he’s communicating. And that voice… the man needs to read audiobooks. Cruz is also really brilliant in the small, but vital role of young Salvador’s mother.

Stans, like me, will love this film, but even if you haven’t tried to decorate your house to look like the flat in Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, or have no idea how to pronounce Almodóvar (honestly, on a English tongue it’s pretty much impossible), this thoughtful, superbly acted, heart-wrenching story of love, loss, and reflection is still most definitely worth your time.

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Pain and Glory is out now.

Image: Pathe UK

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Emily Gargan

Emily Gargan is one of Stylist’s resident film critics. She has a deep love for Pedro Almodóvar, Winona Ryder, felt-tip pens, and dogs named after food.

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