By Michael Koresky in the September-October 2019 Issue
The artist’s autobiographical instinct hardly makes for a natural fit when it comes to film. Cinema may be uniquely equipped to portray memories and dreams, but the act of portraying one’s past is so fraught with potential pitfalls—of re-creation, of imagination, of verisimilitude—that filmmakers often foreground their own processes to create a distancing effect, making works that are less novelistic than metacinematic and call attention to their construction. With auteurism a relatively new concept, Fellini plunged into his own past in 8½ (1963), establishing not only his own legend but also the very concept of the tortured artist-filmmaker. He set a psycho-structural template: many autobiographical movies that have come in its wake—Andrei Tarkovsky’s The Mirror (1975), Bob Fosse’s All That Jazz (1979), Terence Davies’s The Long Day Closes (1992)—owe a debt to that film’s fragmentary nature, acknowledging the mind’s inability to recall the past as a linear progression of events. Even Joanna Hogg’s superlative and shattering latest film, The Souvenir, which moves forward as a legible cause-and-effect narrative, an inexorable lurch toward its maker’s self-realization, is effectively fractured via unsettling distancing effects. The act of remembering in all these films is more than just poignant; it’s actively painful.
Pedro Almodóvar leans into the pain with his new film Pain and Glory, his most autobiographical to date. Structurally, the genre is a no-brainer, perhaps, for a writer-director who has long preferred to tell stories centrifugally, spiraling out from a revelatory center rather than having finite beginnings and endings. Almodóvar’s movies of the 21st century especially, such as Bad Education (2004)—with which this film shares a strong kinship—Broken Embraces (2009), and The Skin I Live In (2011), have consistently moved away from linearity, as though coasting on the waves of memory. In Pain and Glory, Almodóvar makes as explicit as he can that, although it’s a fictional film, much of what we see on screen is based on his own life, right down to the furnishings and paintings on the walls, many of which have been modeled on things he owns, and some of which were lifted from his apartment during shooting. In this latest film, which is a deeply moving inquiry into the catharsis of delving into one’s own past, and the salvation in coming to terms with it, Almodóvar’s drive toward autobiography goes way beyond “write what you know.” This is more like “show who you are.”
In all his oeuvre, there has been no clearer onscreen representation of the filmmaker’s essence than the main character of Pain and Glory, a surrogate figure named Salvador Mallo, played with exquisite middle-aged restraint by Almodóvar’s longtime muse, Antonio Banderas. The rare movie protagonist whose main mode seems to be fatigue, Salvador looks and moves more like Almodóvar than Banderas, or at least more like the colorfully bemused, shirt-untucked Almodóvar we’ve long seen in interviews and onstage appearances than the mischievously sexy Banderas we’ve grown accustomed to. Banderas broke through in the mid-’80s thanks to his unforgettable, transfixing roles in such frisky Almodóvar triumphs as Matador and Law of Desire—the latter an especially vivid showcase for the actor’s ability to control the camera as both stalker and object of desire. He has long refused to let his astonishing handsomeness define his career, mitigating his matinee-idol presence with a wise, Clark Gable–like self-awareness that never disturbs the authentic on-screen chemistry he always has with his co-stars. In Pain and Glory, he pays the ultimate tribute to the friend and filmmaker who made him famous while also playing the most richly drawn character of his career: a director in his fifties who has come to a creative impasse, a Fellini-like existential block that has made it seemingly impossible for him to continue making movies. Banderas is here a watcher; he fully inhabits the skin of an artist, his every glance and grimace a reckoning with some untapped reservoir.
Beyond his profession, age, hairstyle, and clothes, Salvador is an evocation of the director in more (literally) internal ways: like Almodóvar, he is plagued by a bouquet of illnesses, including tinnitus, spinal irregularities, migraines, depression, and anxiety. Not content with letting this come out as subtle backstory or even in exposition, Almodóvar represents it in an elaborate stand-alone sequence early in the film, using detailed animations of anatomy to pinpoint and explain the specific areas of pain that the character—and by extension he himself—has long suffered. The point is not to elicit pity for him but to create a clear topography of the hidden contours of the artist’s life that can both hinder and fuel creativity. The soul may be intact, the spiritual may be present, and the past may be fruitful inspiration, but the work itself can be difficult, especially when the body bends in the opposite direction from the will.
Throughout the film there are many ways in which Salvador will try to expunge or at least alleviate his pain. When we first see him, he is floating vertically in a pool, completely submerged, in a presumably therapeutic pose; the camera traces a surgical scar up his spine. Already Salvador is in a void, though almost instantly this claustrophobic image gives way to a wide-open, airy past, full of possibility. From one pool of water to another: his submersion takes him back to his childhood, where we see a prepubescent Salvador (Asier Flores) beside his mother—played with earthy, Sophia Loren gumption by Penélope Cruz—and a group of women who sing as they wash clothes in a river. This sunny, idyllic scene is the first of many recurring flashbacks to Almodóvar’s childhood in the Franco-ruled ’60s that will become part of the film’s intricate tapestry. Pain and Glory is also woven from scenes of present-day Madrid, and constantly evokes his ’80s heyday. In forcing himself to recount and reconceive his past—his romances, his professional struggles and disappointments, his fraught relationship with his mother—Salvador begins to make space for creative renaissance. We finally realize that the film we’re watching is itself the fruit of these labors.
What makes this work of autobiography particularly gratifying is its queer specificity. The cornerstones of this subgenre, such as 8½ and All That Jazz, plus offshoots and imitations like Woody Allen’s Stardust Memories and Maury Yeston’s Broadway adaptation of Fellini, Nine (not to mention Rob Marshall’s woebegone screen adaptation), all use their male protagonists’ complicated relationships with women—wives, lovers, artistic muses—as springboards for inquiries into creative growth, criticizing but also inherently venerating the male artist’s capacity for female objectification. As a gay filmmaker, Almodóvar necessarily subverts that gendered norm, with the various romantic figures and erotic fixations of Salvador’s past embodied by men. One must not forget the hard-earned freedom that allowed for such expression and which defined Almodóvar’s early years as a bold cultural representative of Spain’s post-Fascist era. Defined by both the veneration of women and the eroticization of men, his films extol aesthetic virtues that had for decades been counter to the national narrative.
The continual return to Salvador’s childhood in Valencia, where his parents have moved from Madrid in search of prosperity, ultimately reveals the poetic centerpiece of the film: the young boy’s realization of his own desire, physically manifest in the enticing body of a laborer in their small stone village. The charming, illiterate young man, Eduardo (César Vicente), is hired by Salvador’s mother to paint their apartment; buried under the ground, their new home is really more of a cave, its only ventilation a caged skylight. (The bunker-like apartment is an expressionistic architectural touch not based on Almodovar’s childhood experiences.) Eduardo’s skills are utilized in exchange for reading and writing lessons, to be administered by little Salvador. Also a talented painter, Eduardo at one point has the angelic young Salvador pose for a portrait. It’s a sly and lovely reversal—he’s now the artist, but Eduardo will one day become Salvador’s unspoken muse. Though the curious boy is clearly drawn to the man, with whom he shares a special childlike rapport, it’s not until he spies him washing in a tub basin that he is hit by the man’s beauty like a thunderbolt. Stricken with a momentary case of Stendhal syndrome, the boy sees Eduardo’s nude form in a classical, Picasso-like bathing pose and faints. It’s a moment that will continue to haunt Salvador, as though acknowledgment of his own homosexuality is emotionally and functionally paralleled with a kind of aesthetic self-knowledge.
In the present, Salvador, though unable and unwilling to write new material, is drawn to past successes when he is invited to present a new restoration of one of his most popular films from the ’80s. Despite his hesitancy to take part in the event, Salvador agrees to do it if joined by former leading man Alberto (Asier Etxeandia), with whom he hasn’t spoken in decades following a feud. Salvador pays an unwanted visit to Alberto, now an aging neurotic with unkempt hair, an abundance of jewelry, and a drug habit. Functioning as both bad influence and unlikely savior, Alberto introduces Salvador to the pain-numbing pleasures of heroin, with which he continues to medicate himself. At the same time that they’re reestablishing their frayed bond, Alberto discovers an old, unproduced play of Salvador’s on the director’s computer, aptly titled “Addiction.” Set in Madrid in the ’80s, detailing Salvador’s passionate romance with former lover Federico against the backdrop of the newly democratic, post-Franco Spain—not incidentally the time of Almodóvar’s artistic flourishing—“Addiction” is told entirely through monologue. Alberto finds the deeply personal way in which Salvador plumbs his own past so moving that he begs him to collaborate on a production of it. Ultimately Salvador agrees, but only if his name is removed, allowing Alberto to function as both performer and credited author.
There’s a pleasing irony to Salvador’s self-effacement with “Addiction,” coming as it does at the narrative center of a film that’s itself so baldly, unapologetically a work of autobiography. Yet Almodóvar expresses the impossibility of Salvador’s attempt to run from the past: none other than Federico (Leonardo Sbaraglia), visiting Madrid for the first time in more than 30 years, happens to be passing by the theater where Alberto is performing. Drawn to the play based on the poster and brief description, Federico buys a ticket and ends up experiencing the odd sensation of watching his own story unfold before him with no forewarning. Such an emotionally overwhelming uncanniness encourages Federico—now a father of two and married to a woman—to seek out Salvador, and their brief rekindling makes for the film’s sexiest passage. Banderas and Sbaraglia radiate the warm chemistry of old lovers and share the kind of exploratory, lustful kiss one rarely sees onscreen, let alone shared by two salt-and-pepper-stubbled, middle-aged men. A true reigniting of their romance is impossible, yet the reconnection has a profound effect on Salvador, as though he is finally buzzed awake, ready to reckon with the past, perhaps finally aware that it hasn’t been completely lost.
Federico’s encounter with the play isn’t the only improbable moment of chance that fuels the narrative of Pain and Glory. Late in the film, Salvador is presented an invitation to an art show exhibiting anonymous or unsigned works. Staring back at him from the flyer is a familiar image: a young boy, posing placidly among flowerpots while reading a book. It’s Eduardo’s painting of him, found by the gallerist at a flea market after being lost for so many years. Salvador’s mother, sensing something improper in the attraction between her son and the older laborer, had ensured that the child would never see it. Yet now it hangs on a gallery wall for all the world to see, a testament to his youth, to his moment of sexual self-recognition, to his incipient artistry, to the intense life of a child’s mind—a moment of shame transformed by time into a gesture of beauty, a thing of pride.
All these coincidences seem to be less for narrative expediency than to express the idea that we are guided by external forces as we travel our circuitous paths. Salvador must find a way to translate his first desires to the screen—a political as much as a personal act. Maybe fate has a hand in Salvador’s decisions; either way some greater force is disallowing him from putting down his pen and camera. Hopefully, the same can be said of Almodóvar: whatever wind is carrying him, long may it guide him to new revelations.