2019 TELLURIDE FILM FESTIVAL: When we first encounter Salvador (Antonio Banderas), he floats peacefully in the pool, the water that symbolizes purity washing away his pain. There is a small but portent scar bisecting his chest, such that the agony can be physical or spiritual. But, because “Pain and Glory (Dolor y Gloria)” is an Almodovar film, you know the suffering is both. The mark is a symbol of a broken, lonely heart as much as it is of an aging, broken body. By the time the autobiographical story ends, you will see in stunning and effective detail why this man can drift so at ease while carrying such heavy life burdens.
If you have seen one film by the Spanish master, in some sense, you have seen them all. Not in the sense that there is nothing new to say or that you will see the surprises and twists of his stories. Far from it. But the symbols and motifs are familiar to even the casual viewer and they make their faithful appearance in “Pain and Glory.” There is that cleansing liquid of course, but also the ever-present mother figure, the regret, the powerful women, the troubled artist full of doubt and anxiety about his talent and craft.
In this film, Salvador, whose name sarcastically means “savior,” is an aging filmmaker who is crippled by bodily infirmities that make him unable to withstanding the demanding exercise of directing another movie. It does not help, either, that he is riddled with a panoply of psychological ailments—depression, anxiety, insomnia—to accompany the tangible aches that seem to run through the two-hundred plus bones in the human body and then some. He even suffers from “dysphagia,” a rare disease I will leave to you to look up. But when a call arrives from a prestigious film center in Madrid (they want to screen Salvador’s thirty-two-year-old masterpiece “Sabor (Taste),” he is unwittingly thrust into a whirlwind of revisiting and reexamining a past full of anguish and good memories.
Salvador’s journey requires him, first, to bury the hatchet with Alberto (Asier Etxeandia), the handsome and now middle-aged lead of “Sabor,” with whom Salvador has had a bitter personal dispute since before opening night. It thrusts him into the hands of late-life addiction, as the pills and pot are no longer enough to keep his physical agony at bay. And it takes him, naturally, to memories of childhood, of sleeping in a train station, of playing by the river, of living in a whitewashed cave in a Spanish villa, all alongside his mother (of course), played by Penelope Cruz.
In Almodovar’s new film, it soon becomes clear that for all the “pain” that is Salvador’s (and the filmmaker’s) life, there is the glory, the beauty, the wonder, of his settings. Though a guest later describes Salvador’s stylish apartment as a “museum,” it is more like an exhibition room for a super cool version of Crate and Barrel, two pieces coexisting alongside self-labelled “popular art” that is meaningful to Salvador’s life. The style is perhaps best described as psychedelic, an approach that the director turns to in an early sequence, one of its least effective and most glaringly unnecessary moments.
But while a lot in “Pain and Glory’s” first half may seem equally superfluous, or even meandering, it behooves you to trust in Almodovar’s creative vision and abilities. It all comes together and pays off magnificently in the end.
What is most remarkable is how Almodovar gives you the sense to understand the entirety of a man’s life, the depths of his motivations and angst, by perfectly conveying a handful of critical inflexion points. Lesser biopics, including some screened even at this film festival, typically struggle to pull that off. It is Almodovar’s talent as a storyteller and his soul-deep if egotistical connection with his own psyche that permit him to fill the canvas so efficiently.
Salvador remembers with obvious happiness key moments from his childhood, including serving as teacher to the handsome and soft-faced young local construction worker. He remembers religious symbolism and a mostly-absent father. He dreams of the days when he was playing in the colorful spaces of his mother’s makeshift home. It is not coincidence that as an adult, his own apartment looks like a tasteful watermelon. It need not be said, the connection is there if you pay attention.
And in some of his newer, reflective work, Salvador also tells you about his childhood fears. He prayed, he confesses, for the heroines of his beloved films to survive. But just two, simple, revealing shots—one of Natalie Wood in “Splendor in the Grass” and the other of Marilyn Monroe—reveal his tragedy. While the protagonists may have made it out alive in the films (barely) they suffered calamitous endings in real life.
Then, unsurprisingly, are memories of his mother, both young and as an old, dying woman. She was a stern figure, but consummately devoted to her son. She taught him everything and kept nothing from him, not even the hurtful words that he has long suspected she felt. His guilt lives in layers, and includes guilt over his guilt, not to mention longing and wistfulness. Salvador associates Mexico, disdainfully at first, with melodrama, and urges his actors not to confuse that for good acting. As it turns out, he is only half serious—his own histrionics come not in the form of tears or even in the form of the crushed cocktail of pills he takes daily, but in the form of much more profound, much more painful, and much more indelible marks. Scars on the chest, but also inside it.
It does not end there, for Salvador the man carries his own crosses, present and of the more recent adult past. But because you understand the boy so well, the sorrow of the man needs little explanation. Almodovar does not ask for pity and you will not feel it, but that is not to say you will not feel an infinite sadness for his travails. It is also punctured and made possible by a sublime Antonio Banderas. The two have collaborated for nearly forty years and Banderas likely knows him better than anyone—which permits a metaphysical give and take between the two, a who’s who if you will, within “Pain and Glory” itself, in classic but effective “story within the story” fashion.
Good filmmakers make their audiences feel the plight of their subjects, and immerse them into the film and story with sincere and relatable cues. Great filmmakers do all of that almost as an afterthought, and take you to a higher level—they tell a human story that you must care about if you have a soul, and that you must suffer alongside with if you have a heart. There is no question, then, that Almodovar is one of the greats.
“Pain and Glory (Dolor y Gloria)” will be released in the United States by Sony Pictures Classics on October 4, 2019