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'Pain & Glory': Regret & Joy
By Michael S. Goldberger, iBerkshires Film Critic
01:42PM / Thursday, October 17, 2019
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"No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent," said the poet, John Donne. But Antonio Banderas' Salvador Mallo, the famed director whose poetic sensibilities are woven throughout Pedro Almodóvar's expertly crafted "Pain & Glory," sure tries to prove him wrong.
In self-imposed hiatus and exile from his storied career when we meet him, Mallo is an anxious confluence of nostalgia, regret, uncertainty and just a little glimmer of hope that might just be our wishful thinking.
Born into more than humble roots of which we are apprised in beautifully etched flashbacks as Salvador painfully and painstakingly tries to find meaning in his approaching golden years, the biographical back-and-forth is a finely executed, purposely enigmatic study of a life scrutinized.
Maybe you don't do it. But I do — shyly admitted, mentally chronicle my life as it fleets along — think back, make connections to the present and, through it all, try to mine some purpose in the phenomenon that has placed us, alive and thinking, on this orb our ancestors named Earth.
It's a lot to mull, but then what better subject is there to study when you're not otherwise trying to find a cure for cancer, attempting to extinguish poverty and suing for world peace?
But while not to diminish the creativity you might employ in your own introspection, with "Pain & Glory," Almodóvar artistically unfurls why he is the auteur and we are the audience. He takes the personal and, tossing it around in his creativity machine, presents the universal truths that make us a piece of that continent to which the English cleric Donne alludes. There is a wrestling match that takes place among our id, our ego and whatever other parts of our inner nature exact their affect as we work through the process. The indulgence is that there is destiny in us human beings, spiritual or otherwise.
So this is highfalutin stuff, a necessary, anti-philistine offering that, through the touching, simple biographical moments beneath the hoity-toity postulations, raises its fists to the mendacious robber barons currently trying to wrest away all that civilized people have achieved.
Films of this cerebral caliber are reminders. We have worth, and aren't about to trade our humanitarian gains for the fool's gold that is implied in a so-called good economy that anomalously deprives way too many folks from affordable health care, causes some to work two jobs to survive and each night sends an unconscionable number of kids to bed hungry.
While Almodóvar's latest tour de force doesn't directly address its altruistic reaction to those piggish parts of our population who don't care a feather or a fig, a good part of its aesthetic appeal, as in many other forms of 24-carat art, is in the truth-divulging filigree. In one scene when Salvador visits a sketchy neighborhood in Madrid to score drugs, the director implies volumes of sociological perception. If I were a bit smarter I'd probably know what sort of realism it is, or maybe even coin my own term for it. But the fact is, the protagonist's Hesse-like journey through his past and present is arguably a microcosm of our worldview, or, to be a bit more precise if not entirely pretentious, what the German thinkers call Weltanschauung.
Adding, even in its anguishing and most confusing moments, to the bittersweet celebration of the life experience, is Almodóvar's ceaselessly fascinating use of his filmic palette. His deft sleight of hand in the integration of visually arresting backdrops adds a complementing dimension that is a veritable party for the eyes. Like a great ballplayer who makes his peerless abilities seem easy if not outright G-d-given, there is a deceptive simplicity in construction ... an economy of genius that allows him to fit all of his narrative's elements into a storytelling package that is neither small nor large, old or new.
Hence, mixing the art and science of the medium with a catalytic dab of the alchemy that is pure Almodóvar, "Pain & Glory" deserves a place on every cineaste's dance card. And, for students of the art who might hope to make a buck at this game one day, the technical expertise of the seamlessly accomplished flashbacks is a moviemaking lesson unto itself.
Getting the nod to play the object of Pedro Almodóvar's concern, affection and disdain, arguably as much an honor as being singled out by Hitchcock, Kubrick or Altman, Mr. Banderas is superb as a modern-day Job. Swirling around in the troubled waters of what was and might be, he is visibly haggard, but, despite more than one frightening health scare and a dabbling in drugs, he is thus far a survivor, a mortal crash dummy with a soul. All of which engages our imagination as we anxiously hope that, by movie's end, Salvador Mallo's glory will outweigh his pain.
"Pain & Glory," rated R, is a Sony Pictures Classics release directed by Pedro Almodóvar and stars Antonio Banderas, Penélope Cruz and Asier Etxeandia. In Spanish with English subtitles. Running time: 113 minutes
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