• Teresa Xie


A quick Google search of Pain and Glory will lead you to this description: "Salvador Mallo, a famous film director, reflects on the choices he’s made in life as the past and present come crashing down around him.” However, this synopsis entirely misses one of the focal points of Pain and Glory, which actually explores the way the past is never entirely separate from the present. These tenses don’t suddenly come “crashing down” on the film’s protagonist; as the viewer comes to realize, the past and the present have always been intertwined in Salvador's art and his life.

This pairing of the words “pain and glory” remind me of Peter Huajr’s Orgasmic Man. The title given to this photo is fairly self-explanatory, but the piece of work sans title is not. While the title suggests the subject in Orgasmic Man is having an orgasm, without context, he looks to be in a great deal of pain; his brows are furrowed, his eyes are tightly shut, and his jaw is clenched. The line between pain and glory is not entirely clear, nor should the two be expected to be opposites.

Similarly, in Pedro Almodóvar’s Pain and Glory, Salvador’s (Antonio Banderas) pain anchors both his art and personal glory. The film opens with a run-down of Salvador’s chronic pains in old age, which range from those that relate to his spinal-fusion surgery to depression, fueled by his mother's recent passing. The stark contrast between Salvador’s physical state now and that when he was younger is automatically clear, as the initial shot of the film switches between present-day Salvador submerged in a pool and a memory of Salvador’s childhood, in which he’s playing near an open river while his mother (Penélope Cruz) and women sing blissfully.

After rewatching a film he made thirty-years ago, Salvador decides to reconnect with Alberto Crespo (Asier Etxeandia), its main star. Crespo, an avid heroin user, influences Salvador to try heroin, and Salvador quickly becomes addicted. This addiction, like most addictions, is fueled by Salvador’s paralytic feeling of numbness; he convinces himself he’s too physically inept to make films again and spends his days alone in a carefully curated house. Crespo eventually stumbles upon an autobiographical piece Salvador wrote titled “Addiction,” which revolves around his relationship with a man named Federico who he loved very much but was addicted to heroin. On a meta level, the introduction to Salvador’s “Addiction” separates Pain and Glory into a section that explores Salvador’s present-day addiction and mid-life story. Salvador gives Crespo the rights to perform a one-man show of “Addiction,” revealing a turning point in Salvador’s willingness to craft his pain into art once again. Crespo, who practically begs Salvador to let him perform the piece, trades in heroin for acting and the chance to actually feel something real, even if the irony is that he’s playing someone who at present-day doesn’t feel much at all.

Although Salvador remains anonymous as the writer, the performance of “Addiction” leads to an encounter between Salvador and someone from his past. In one of the most telling scenes of the whole film, Salvador is asked if the pain from the relationship between him and this person from his past ever derailed his art. Salvador responds with, “Just the opposite.” There is both pain and wonder in his eyes, greatly revealing the way pain has always molded his art, even if at a cost.

When Salvador sifts through memories of his past, they are selective moments featuring his relationship with his mother, the joy of teaching a carpenter how to read and write, and a peek into his sexual awakening. These memories, although precious, also seem somewhat distilled, as Almodóvar tenaciously gives the viewer just enough of a glimpse, but not a droplet more. Pain and Glory simultaneously feels like it’s being created on the spot, as it slowly unfolds with Salvador’s gracious stripping his vulnerabilities, while unpacking layers that have been very purposefully planted throughout.

I don’t want to spoil too much of the film, because even the very last scene brings an unexpected twist to this delicately crafted story. Nevertheless, Pain and Glory is an exercise in exposing the way art, no matter how abstract, mimics life and vice versa. In this work, Almodóvar casts Banderas to play a version of himself, as Salvador does Crespo, creating an intimate autobiographical web with a bare nakedness that any viewer can find a piece of themselves in.

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