Pain and Glory: The Eight and a Half of the 21st Century

Your sole reason for wanting to read this article may be the clickbait-y nature of the title and the praise it automatically grants the film in discussion in a length of a few words; yes, I know, Eight and a Half is one of the greatest films of all time, as honest as they come, and most importantly, as beautiful as they are ever shot. And I agree, but upon finishing my first viewing of Pedro Almodóvar’s latest effort, and I am sure it’s going to be the first of many, I was under the same spell films like Eight and a Half, All That Jazz and Stardust Memories cast upon on me so many times: mesmerized by the ability of someone to be so honest so publicly, to be able to simply put one’s entire life on screen for the world to see, to have nothing to hide and everything to show, and jealous of the strength and courage this feat requires. As soon as the credits rolled, I wanted to hop on my laptop and write about it as much as possible, to at least ease this overwhelming effect it now has on me, an effect that I know for a fact will be with me for a long, long time.

Pain and Glory tells the story of Salvador Mallo, a director in decline, who relives his life through daydreams, encounters with key characters from his youth, and drug-induced dragon chases. As he struggles with health issues, both physical and psychological, Salvador yearns for a simpler and happier time. If Almodóvar put some of himself into his protagonist, or all of it, or maybe none of it, I do not know, but I highly doubt that creating a character this complex that feels more alive that one’s self can be achieved without a dive into one’s life first. Art is autobiographical, and without knowing the facts of the film, I safely assume that it is very much so, and even if it isn’t, it certainly plays and feels like the confessions of someone who has to let it all out.

Pain and Glory is a reminiscence on love told by a character who no longer has any of it. We see two sides of Salvador, the person he became in his latter years, old, sick, weary, and friendless; but once given the chance of reuniting with a college whom he had not spoken to for decades, we see a man yearning for any form of warmth, even if it is with someone he has no particular liking for. The play he writes, The Addiction, is one way he reminisces over the past. “Our movie theater smelled of piss, jasmine and a summer breeze.” The play, which he describes as a confessional text, not only brings him back to the past, but brings the past to him. Salvador’s emotionally devastated side is not showcased entirely until his reunion with his old lover, Federico. This whole act is dripping with emotion, brutal honesty and an even more brutal imperative to face the bittersweet past. While the entire film is shot beautifully, the cinematography of Pain and Glory thrives here, the colors, especially the red, the close-ups, the longshots, the masterful camera work all render what is one of the film’s most devastating acts lethal and I would be lying if I said that it didn’t make me cry numerous times.

Salvador’s physical world is as weary and sick as his health, so his mind completely inhabits the past, out of longing, out of regret, and out of a desire for more. We see his strolls back into the village where he lived as a child, his deep love for his mother, his relationship with her in her latter years and the regret and remorse over “wrong” decisions. The penultimate act of the film is entirely dedicated to what is essentially the key character to the construction of Salvador’s person, his mother. If the film up to that point had been devastatingly strong, then this chapter delivers a fatal and final blow, and would have been in my opinion, not a better, but a more powerful conclusion to the film. That is not to say that I don’t like the ending, but it is far too ambiguous, it neither ends on a note of optimism nor pessimism, it does not even end at all, we just stop watching.

For those of you that watched the film and are now reading this, you may be wondering why I have chosen not to discuss on of the most important themes of the film, drug addiction, and that is because I feel it has no power over the story. Sure, it adds an element of antagonism and a sense of danger, but it could have been replaced with anything else, and the effect would have been the same. An escape can be found in many things, it just happens to be drugs here.

To say that I loved Pain and Glory is a huge understatement, it made me smile, it made me cry and its mesmerizing effect will be stuck with me for a long, long time. It is brutally honest, and it shows on screen. The performances of all the cast are perfect, but Antonio Banderas’ is a knockout, and my personal pick for best performance of 2019. Maybe my thoughts will be clearer upon a re-watch, but just like Salvador in the film, I simply had to get this off my chest.


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