' ' Cinema Romantico: Pain and Glory

Monday, November 11, 2019

Pain and Glory

If the oeuvre of renowned Spanish filmmaker Pedro Almodóvar has long evinced melodrama and exaggeration, his latest, “Pain and Glory”, is more mellow. Even his beloved primary colors frequently feel more muted, like his protagonist’s striking green leather jacket, its bold hues drowned out by the gloomy interiors of a doctor’s office. That’s not to suggest “Pain and Glory” forgoes Almodóvar’s preferred metatext and twists; they are just conveyed with fewer soap opera flourishes, evoked in the film’s indelible closing shot, not to be revealed, where the last piece of the puzzle falls into place with nothing more than a gentle pulling back of the camera. In this way, Almodóvar echoes the air of his leading man, Antonio Banderas, who in his conspicuously thick grey hair exists as a thinly-disguised version of Almodóvar himself, a brilliant but now reclusive Spanish filmmaker named Salvador Mallo suffering a litany of physical ailments, all of which Banderas brings to life not with elaborate gestures but minimally emphatic motions. And as the film opens, Salvador floats underwater in a pool. If it suggests relief from his intense pain, or perhaps his proximity to death, it made me think of a kind of underwater meditation where you become literally and figuratively weightless, releasing everything so you can let everything back in, which is precisely what “Pain and Glory” does too.

Almodóvar tells the story of Salvador in the present day while flashing back to his youthful upbringing, living under the watchful gaze of his devout mother Jacinta (Penélope Cruz) in a cave-like dwelling. The initial flashback finds the young Salvador on a riverbank with his mother, laundering clothes but singing, hinting at her son’s impending artistic soul. That river, though, doesn’t feel just like a picturesque setting but a telling metaphor – in “Pain and Glory”, memory is like a river, always there whether you see it or not, ready and waiting for Salvador to dip into. And Salvador’s emergent heroin addiction in adulthood also becomes the most frequent trigger of these flashbacks, which taken in conjunction with the oddly nonthreatening portrayal of this addiction, kicked with nothing more than a shrug, suggest nostalgia as a drug itself, which, in turn, “Pain and Glory” embraces and then gracefully expunges by looking back as a means to move forward.

The past and present become intertwined when a local theater asks to screen one of Salvador’s classics. This, though, becomes less the point than the director re-uniting and half-reconciling with his estranged leading man Alberto (Asier Etxeandia), whose performance in the ostensible classic Salvador criticized. With the passage of time, however, Salvador admits he sees more clearly what Alberto intended to evince, an admission that Banderas manages to delicately render as both cutting and just the plain truth, a window into his character’s professional air. The screening, which is as much about Almodóvar airing his grievances about the Q&A format (second!) as the screening itself, leads directly to Alberto staging a one man show of Salvador’s unpublished manuscript titled Addiction. In this stirring sequence, “Pain and Glory” becomes a virtual hall of mirrors, not just in the way Alberto is playing Salvador who is playing Almodóvar, but in how the real-life director and his editor Teresa Font whisk these images together to illustrate how art is a dialogue between artist and audience.

The human subject of this show, Federico (Leonardo Sbaraglia), it turns out, is in the audience one night. Long ago, in 80s Madrid, he and Salvador were hooked on heroin and on each other. Recognizing himself, Frederico approaches Alberto and then seeks out Salvador. The ensuing sequence in which the two lovers reunite for an evening is a short film unto itself. Font underscores their connection, despite so many years apart, simply in a symphony of reverse shots, the tight frames laying bare the palpable ardor virtually imprinted in their expressions, Sbaraglia in particular capturing the way deep love welled in with you manifests itself in the wideness of your smile, with occasional cutaways from the side briefly tamping down the magnetism of those medium close-ups even if the men’s emotional current remains evident. And every actorly gesture not only epitomizes the moment in which they are in but illuminates the past they share; watch when Frederico offers a toast to a female comrade and how Banderas lets his head fall gently to one side with an almost imperceptible nod and a kind of wordless sigh of recognition, a split-second effortlessly encapsulating an entire unseen relationship.

Despite their evident re-connection, however, in the space of their sad smiles it becomes just as clear they cannot recreate their moment of the past, the sequence ending on a bittersweet note that continues through an ensuing vignette of Salvador visiting with his aging mother and hearing of her desire to return home one last time. That desire proves no less ineffectual, leaving art as the last remedy, a way to freeze moments and places in time, an idea not only manifesting itself in a watercolor from Salvador’s childhood but in “Pain and Glory” itself, once the curtain is finally, not until the last moment, drawn back.

There is a moment during Alberto’s one-man show when, standing downstage, the camera pushes in on him. And if for most of this scene Almodóvar is switching angles to take in the full scope of the room, here his slow zoom removes all the people, all the negative space, even that crimson wall in the background, leaving us with just the actor’s face in close-up. It is nothing less than Almodóvar demonstrating how an artist can hone in on one image and give it permanence.

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