“Cinema has become my life. I don’t mean a parallel world, I mean my life itself. I sometimes have the impression that the daily reality is simply there to provide material for my next film.” — Pedro Almodóvar
There are many things to admire in the films of acclaimed Spanish writer/director Pedro Almodóvar. There are the quick-witted sense of humor, the bright colors, and excellent performances from a recurring stock company of actors. But what really makes his work memorable is his zest for humanity. Whether he’s telling Hitchcockian stories of obsession or portraying zany people in wild situations, Almodóvar shows a unique knack for capturing his enthusiasm for his characters’ various idiosyncrasies.
What makes his latest film, Pain and Glory (Dolor y gloria in the original Spanish), so interesting is the initial somber quality of its subject matter. This movie tells the story of Salvador Mallo, a middle-aged film director who is heavily contemplating retirement. He is abrasive and suffers from a long list of physical and mental health problems. A viewing of his old film Sabor leads him to reunite with its lead actor Alberto Crespo, whom he has not spoken to in 30 years. Their renewed friendship sparks a series of events that lead Mallo to contemplate his childhood and past.
While Almodóvar has denied that Pain and Glory is strictly autobiographical, he has referred to it as “the movie that is closest to me.” A storyline involving Mallo teaching a young man to read when he was a child is based on Almodóvar teaching several people who were in their teens and twenties how to read when he was a boy. Sentiments that Mallo expresses about his family are identical to those Almodóvar has expressed in interviews. Mallo even wears clothes that belong to Almodóvar. This film has such a personal quality to it that, after Almodóvar sent the script to his closest collaborators (including but not limited to Antonio Banderas and his younger brother Agustín Almodóvar), all of them reached out to him to make sure that he wasn’t suffering as much as Mallo does.
Despite the pain that Mallo feels, and the air of regret that hangs over various sequences like mist on a summer day, Pain and Glory is never dull. It has that spontaneity which made Almodóvar’s older films so much fun to watch. A fight between Mallo and Crespo during a Q&A is especially unexpected. But this film’s spontaneity, which includes the sudden return of characters and objects that Mallo has not seen for decades, is tinged with the weight of the passage of time that makes it more sad and meaningful than the spontaneity that defined his earlier films.
But there is more than unpredictability that makes Pain and Glory fit in well with the rest of Almodóvar’s body of work. It features Antonio Banderas, who had appeared in seven Almodóvar films before this one, as Mallo. Penelope Cruz, one of the filmmaker’s favorite actors, plays Mallo’s mother. Pain and Glory also completes Almodóvar’s trilogy of films about gay male film directors dealing with personal and/or creative crises that includes Law of Desire and Bad Education. Those films also feature, whether they are briefly mentioned or acted out, a dramatic text that is either written by the protagonist or will form the basis of his next work. All three films make clear that the happiest ending for their protagonists is being able to keep creating.
Pain and Glory came out in 2019, as did two other films that saw great directors reckon with their own mortality. Those films were Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman and Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood. But while Scorsese is going to direct a film based on the book Flowers of the Osage Moon and Tarantino has promised that he has one more movie in him, Almodóvar has not announced any plans for a new film. This personal film could very well end up being a very high note on which he will end his career. But, if the ending of Pain and Glory is any indication, what seems like an ending is really just a new beginning.
Jesse Pasternack is a graduate of Indiana University. During his time at IU, Jesse was the co-president of the Indiana Student Cinema Guild. He also wrote about film, television, and pop culture for the Indiana Daily Student. Jesse has been a moderator at Michael Moore’s Traverse City Film Festival and is a friend of the Doug Loves Movies podcast. An aspiring professional writer-director, his own film work has appeared at Campus Movie Fest and the Anthology Film Archives in New York City.