Friday, August 23, 2019

Pain and Glory – great storytelling, much pain, little glory (QFT from Friday 23 August)

Despite the title, there’s definitely more pain that glory in Pedro Almodóvar’s latest Spanish-language film. The sustaining plot line in Pain and Glory (15) follows a film director who has been torn away from the camera by his aching body. Salvador (Antonio Banderas) spends much of his autumn years indoors, in low light, taking pills to ease the agony, and unable to push forward with new projects. Through flashbacks to his childhood, we discover that his pain is also psychological and tied up with aspects of his closeted identity.

While the pain is very real, the glory is mostly projected. Salvador didn’t like his old film which has just been restored and is going to be screened once again. But when he takes the opportunity to reconnect with caustic Alberto (Asier Etxeandia), an actor he has long held a grudge against, they spend longer chasing the dragon than truly burying the hatchet.

Having been brought up in a cave with whitewashed walls, the fictional director now lives surrounded by opulent art and rich objects. Director of photography José Luis Alcaine picks up on the patterns in his framing of non-art-based shots, drawing a vivid thread through the 113-minute film.

The scenes were shot in Almodóvar’s Madrid apartment. Pain and Glory turns out to be an incredibly personal piece, drawing on some of his own experiences.

If you get the opportunity to attend a screening followed by a Q&A with Almodóvar, jump at the opportunity. If he detests them as much as he allows his fictional director to avoid them, it’ll certainly be a memorable evening.

Banderas is a convincing old man, hobbling about each scene. He bears the burden of his character’s ailments, yet no matter how well he performed, the heroin usage plot point sat awkwardly on the journey of self-discovery, only really there to pass the time with Alberto and set up the discovery of an autobiographical manuscript. (Another hint to the autobiographical nature of the story.)

Some of the flashbacks are more rewarding than the contemporary scenes. Penélope Cruz plays his mother Jacinta in a handful of sweet and warm scenes that paint a picture of the poverty and simplicity of his youth. Julieta Serrano rather brilliantly takes over the role of Jacinta in old age, picking at another unhealed scab in Salvador’s festering sore. With so many old memories unearthed and explored, can his creative block be lifted?

The narrative is neither linear nor predictable, though each scene neatly connects to the next. Almodóvar leaves a hint of ambiguity in many of his vignettes that adds a frisson of uncertainty to the viewing experience. (I was convinced that young Salvador would fall into the river in the opening scene, yet he doesn’t.) While women are important to his survival, they’re somewhat subservient in the narrative.

In the end, while the storytelling was exceptional, and there was no end of heartache in the broken relationships that surrounded Salvador, the film left me rather unmoved, emotionless even when presented with its most precious scenes. 

Pain and Glory is released in the UK and Ireland on Friday 23 August and is being screened in Queen’s Film Theatre.

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