TIFF 2019: Pain and Glory (Pedro Almodovar, 2019, Spain)

                  Pain and Glory finds Almodovar in a more somber mood. And for much of the film’s 2 hours, it seems that things will end in sadness and despair. Antonio Banderas as Salvador Mallo – the most direct stand-in for Almodovar to ever appear in one of his films – gives a career best performance as an aging director and writer whose life seems to be characterized by one feeling: pain. Almodovar cleverly shows this in an animation at the beginning of the film, which showcases the myriad ailments afflicting our protagonist in anatomical detail.
                  While Banderas’s character follows a clear trajectory in the film toward rediscovering his artistic voice, the film feels more episodic in nature. The first episode involves Salvador’s reunion with an estranged artistic collaborator, which ends up inadvertently in the staging of one of Salvador’s unperformed plays. This leads into the next episode, wherein another chance leads to Salvador’s reunion with an old lover. The third episode hones in on a common motif in Almodovar’s cinema – a mother and son relationship. 
                  It is hard not to view Pain and Glory as Almodovar’s 8 ½, with Banderas filling in as his Mastroianni. Yet for a director who built his reputation on flamboyant characters and outlandish scenarios, Painis remarkably grounded in reality. The film’s treatment of addiction, for example, while not gritty, is at least quite believable. If there is one weakness of the film, it is perhaps that it comes too close to the boring reality of chronic addiction and pain.
                  The film shines the most in flashback sequences to Salvador’s childhood, in particular sequences with his mother – played by Penelope Cruz. In these passages we feel a real sense of the development of Almodovar as an artist – the obsessions that appear throughout his filmography begin to manifest themselves, especially during an extended segment involving Salvador’s tutoring a neighbor (“the birth of desire”). And while pain plays a significant thematic role in Almodovar’s latest, memory plays perhaps an even greater role. This points to the success of the film – it is rare that a filmmaker can make so specific and personal, while at the same time conveying a deep universality.

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