Director: Pedro Almodóvar
Stars: Antonio Banderas, Penélope Cruz, Asier Etxeandia
Ah, the autobiographical film from a recognised auteur. Is there anything more indulgent? Anything narrower in field?
Of course, one might argue that any film from an auteur is, in a way, autobiographical; that a personal imprint is a personal imprint. Still, when a filmmaker draws the collaborative talents at their disposable to transpose their own memoir, a risible trait or two aren’t often far from the picture.
Time for a small amount of heresy. I’ve gradually been working my may, wonkily, through the films of Federico Fellini. Eight films seen and not a dud to speak of. Then, within the last week, I encountered his celebrated 1973 film Amarcord, which draws from his own memories of childhood in an Italian seaside town during the rise of Fascist Italy in the ’30s. And it was the first of his films that just didn’t stick with me. I couldn’t find significant access. Sure, sequences here and there grabbed me, but it was taciturn, defiant, a restless experience.
It’s possible Pedro Almodóvar has never made a film that wasn’t a little bit personal. I have quite a way to go in catching up with a majority of his work (fortunately an iminent Picturehouse season along with the present MUBI retrospective ought to rectify that), still Pain And Glory feels nakedly autobiographical.
Antonio Banderas stars as Almodóvar’s foil Salvador Mallo; a middle-aged filmmaker riddled with physical and emotional complaints, grieving the loss of his mother and struggling to make a new and defined artistic stride forward. By chance his life starts to intersect with people from his past, allowing him to reflect on his youth, pursued through sinuous flashbacks.
The catalysts for these memories move in and out of the picture, bringing new information and occasionally stealing sequences. One of the most prominent of these is Alberto Crespo (Asier Etxeandia), the lead actor in one of Mallo’s most famous films, with whom he hasn’t spoken in over 30 years due to a disagreement over Crespo’s performance. The two become reacquainted when the film is restored and they are invited to a Q&A.
Their reunion is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it provokes a secretive collaboration that gives Etxeandia one of the film’s few virtuoso sequences; the enactment of one of Mallo’s memoirs on an intimate theatre stage. On the other, Mallo gains from Crespo a taste for heroin which tiresomely preoccupies a majority of the running time.
Other peaks are on the horizon, however. Mallo is reunited with an old flame from his twenties, when he was staying up all night and making his first pictures. This brief encounter between Banderas and actor Leonardo Sbaraglia offers as emotionally rich a break in the formula as the aforementioned theatre monologue. Ships passing in the night, its the real highlight here.
These two encounters provide means for Almodóvar to stage his reminiscences in the present, and Pain And Glory feels better for the crafty immediacy. When he defers to more conventional flashbacks, the life is sucked out of the piece. While its pleasing to have Penélope Cruz on board in these flashbacks as Mallo’s mother, they are frequently the least remarkable portions of the film.
That is, until Mallo gets his groove back, kicks the heroin (finally) and rediscovers the memory of his burgeoning homosexuality. The sequence in which his young self peeps at an illiterate builder washing himself in the family kitchen is Almodóvar at his most sensuous. But, like the aforementioned guest stars in Mallo’s life, once his purpose is accomplished he vanishes, never to be seen again. Mallo makes memories, but not connections…
Peaks and troughs, peaks and troughs. Sequences of smouldering intensity and long stretches of affluent banality. Of course, a love of cinema courses through the entirety of the piece, and that’s as easy to take as ever. So too are Almodóvar’s usual eye-popping choices when it comes to interior decorating and costuming. Everything is so richly detailed.
And it’s okay that he writes his alter-ego as, for the most part, totally unlikable; a misanthropic junkie. That’s fine, funny even. But spending time in the man’s company isn’t nearly so enjoyable. Banderas is great at it, but he’s just another rich middle-aged sad-sack looking for the meaning of life at the bottom of a swimming pool (can we retire this particular cliché already?).
When I loved Pain And Glory I loved it. When it bored me I wanted to leave the theatre. It’s Amarcord all over again. Go figure.