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Four out of five stars for Almodóvar’s Pain and Glory

Pedro Almodóvar’s last film, “Julieta” (2016), was disappointing; he seemed stagnated by success.  Appearances can be misleading however, as his new film “Pain and Glory” (Dolor y Gloria) handily demonstrates. In it, Almodóvar takes a new approach: a self-reflection on his life as a Spanish writer/director.

Throughout the film, we see the brutal reality of Salvador Mallo’s (Antonio Banderas) depression as he grapples with both physical and emotional affliction throughout his declining cinematic career. Mallo struggles to come to terms with grief, abandonment, rejection, and isolation; his only salvation is his expressive writing. Almodóvar perfectly balances these intense and despondent scenes with memories of innocence and joy from Mallo’s childhood and his loving mother, Jacinta (Penélope Cruz). The film gains new gravity in the second half where Mallo’s character begins to evolve as he starts to come to terms with his heroin addiction. By reconnecting with old colleagues and friends, Mallo is eventually able to regain his artistic flare and be proud of his original contribution to cinema.

You don’t have to look far to find links between Mallo and Almodóvar. It’s not Almodóvar’s most creative film, but “Pain and Glory” may be his most personal, vulnerable and emotional one. Almodóvar has paid homage to his mother in several of his films, notably “Volver” (Return) and “All About My Mother” (Todo Sobre Mi Madre), but “Pain and Glory” gives us the deepest understanding yet of their relationship and the profound love they shared. “Bad Education” (La Mala Educación) has a similar auto-biographical approach to “Pain and Glory”, but considering the open-heartedness and humility portrayed in the latter, it was merely touching the surface.

Almodóvar has always attributed his success in the film industry to the women in his life. Inspiring women who have endured suffering have always been at the heart of his work. Surprisingly, women in “Pain and Glory” are very much background characters who do not contribute to the film in a pivotal way. Instead, they are presented as assistants and helpers of men, a treatment that seems unreasonable considering how much Almodóvar owes to the women in his life. Almodóvar’s avatar, Mallo is similarly dependent on women:  it is his assistant Zulema (Cecilia Roth) who supports him through his emotional turmoil, yet receives little to no credit for doing so.

Almodóvar is not the only creative power behind the film, Antonio Banderas’ acting is the driving force of the film, communicating Mallo’s depression with masterful clarity. Indeed, in his performance of  Mallo, Banderas epitomises the interconnectedness of pain and glory. The consequences of one dominating over the other are the subject of an intimate and artistic exploration by both Banderas and Almodóvar; indeed the director has never adopted as soul-bearing an approach as he does in “Pain and Glory”. 

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