John Waters aptly expressed both his and my feelings about Pedro Almodóvar‘s latest film, Pain and Glory—among my favorites of the year and one of the Spanish iconoclast’s best works—when, in his annual top ten list for Artforum, the filth maestro himself declared it the “first Almodóvar movie to shock me.” Anyone familiar with Almodóvar’s work who’s not yet seen the film, now awash in award season buzz, can only wonder what Waters means. At this point in his career, it would seem unlikely that Almodóvar could outdo himself, having made two films that received an NC-17 rating and many more handsomely appalling melodramas that incorporate such verboten activities as rape, drug and sex abuse, and incest, in addition to his general inclusion of characters whose sexualities are wholly liberated from the paltry limitations of labels.
Waters elucidated his point by clarifying that Pain and Glory is “not one bit funny or melodramatic.” I’d argue that humor and melodrama are present in every Almodóvar film, as both are such a part of his filmic DNA that they’re present even when not conspicuously on display. Still, Waters gets at the heart of what makes the film—teeming with so much of that indefinable quality, heart—an extraordinary digression. It’s one that I hope marks a new phase of Almodóvar’s career, which could be said to have started with his subdued 2016 film Julieta, an adaptation of three short stories by Alice Munro from her book Runaway, decidedly restrained source material for the likes of Almodóvar.
Pain and Glory is yet another entry in this year’s cycle of Wild Strawberries-esque films, which also includes Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman and Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time . . . in Hollywood. Like Ingmar Bergman’s seminal masterpiece, these movies reflect their directors’ later-in-life preoccupations. Almodóvar’s follows an older, ailing, and creatively stifled film director, Salvador—played by frequent Almodóvar collaborator Antonio Banderas, whose tender, understated performance ranks among the year’s best—around the 30th anniversary of one of his most famous movies. The event affords him the opportunity of reconnecting with the film’s leading man, Alberto, whose use of heroin during production resulted in a falling out with Salvador. Having reconciled, the two embark on a new creative project, a one-person stage show in which Alberto delivers a monologue Salvador had written about an ex-lover’s heroin addiction. This leads also to Salvador beginning to smoke heroin himself, a habit he reevaluates after reconnecting, in some of the films’ best scenes, with said ex-lover.
Interwoven within the contemporary narrative are what appear to be flashbacks to Salvador’s childhood in Paterna, where he, his mother Jacinta (Penélope Cruz, another frequent Almodóvar collaborator), and his father live in a whitewashed cave house. During these scenes we learn about Salavador’s formative years as both a creative and sexual being; in more recent flashbacks, we see Salvador with his elderly, ailing mother, the complexity of their relationship having extended far past childhood.
In the contemporary setting, Salvador experiences choking bouts due to a growth in his throat, and his malaise surrounding this and other physical ailments affects his creative voice. Almodóvar’s own voice, however, persists even throughout this apparent thematic evolution. Salvador begins smoking heroin as though it were the natural thing to do; that it’s broached without any fanfare accounts for Almodóvar’s provocative—and amusing—candor. Also present is one fully realized meta production (and another, less fully realized, though I won’t say more about that one). In this case, the one-person stage show, performed in front of a vibrant red background, that symbolic color, which, like the bull to the cape, draws our eyes to the screen as we eagerly await whatever delicious visual onslaught Almodóvar has in store for us. This motif of the meta production, included in so many of his previous films, speaks to his unrelenting creative spirit; Almodóvar’s is a garish utopia, in which, at any time, a person can stage a play or make a movie.
Though I’ve always admired Almodóvar’s films, I’ve nevertheless felt detached from them. There’s no denying that they are personal, but those elements that make them so shocking, ironically, are what often keep them from feeling intimate. Almodóvar has gone back and forth over whether or not Pain and Glory is autobiographical; furthermore, nothing in the film is especially new for him, as several of his earlier films also feature people, places, and things analogous to those in the director’s own life. Yet, while still embracing the visual facades that make his films such a pleasure to watch, Pain and Glory finds him stripping away the emotional facades, bringing us closer to him than ever before. v