Let’s start this review with a bit of honesty: Our friends are not always the best storytellers.
We love our friends and, by extension, we love the stories they tell. But often, they will go on rabbit trails or over-explain, and a tale that obviously has great personal power for them never quite translates to the listener.
Pedro Almodovar’s “Pain and Glory” is something like that- a nearly two-hour-long anecdote from a beloved filmmaking friend. It is arguably the most deeply personal of all of Almodovar’s works, but, to the viewer, it’s likely to feel more like pretentious navel-gazing.
But if the sum is less than its parts, many of those parts are indisputably great. An actor or two give what may be the best performances of their careers, and there are moments of great emotion and power. “Pain and Glory” is not a gripping film, but it is also not without its own small glories.
The film is what Almodovar himself calls “autofiction” – fictional stories loosely based on his own personal history. In telling the story of aging filmmaker/Almodovar stand-in Salvador Mallo, Almodovar’s script jumps from scene to scene, past to present. This is less a fully-fledged story than a collection of short vignettes from the filmmaker’s life.
Some of these have more impact than others. Mallo’s reunion with a former lover is indisputably touching, for example, as is a late-in-the film conversation between Mallo and his mother (played by Penelope Cruz and Julieta Serrano at different ages).
The common factor between the scenes that work is Banderas, whose Oscar-nominated performance is brilliant enough to merit sitting through two hours of Almodovar pretentiousness. It’s a quiet performance- played out almost entirely in facial expressions and small gestures- but one that sticks with you.
The whole ensemble cast clicks together rather nicely actually, with Cruz, Serrano, Leonardo Sbaraglia, and Cecilia Roth all giving lovely, understated performances.
Almodovar proves that, after four decades in the film industry, he has become a master of craft and color. He also includes a nice meta twist at the end of the film that made me re-evaluate everything that came before.
But all of those grace notes don’t completely excuse the film from being a dull slog for most of its running time. The first half, focusing on a reunion between Mallo and an actor whose career he launched, is a chore, and Almodovar’s considerable craft can’t disguise the fact that the film has nearly every stereotypical flaw of arthouse movies – it’s self-indulgent and overlong and comprised largely of rich people complaining about their lives.
The “pain” of the title is laid on heavy and thick – from homophobia to heroine addiction to cancer – to the point where the film becomes so unrealistically melodramatic that even Banderas can’t bring it back down to earth.
There are subtitles, which make the whole thing feel even less accessible than it is. Unlike something like “Parasite” (which rightly beat out “Pain and Glory” in the international film competition at the Oscars earlier this year), “Pain and Glory” (rated R for drug use, some graphic nudity and language) doesn’t feel particularly universal. It’s possible that the only folks who will connect with this are Almodovar fans and Almodovar himself.
But after 40 years of filmmaking, I can excuse a little self-indulgence and a little too much introspection on Almodovar’s part. After the career he’s had, he’s earned it. And if the story doesn’t carry the same power for the audience as it does for the director, that’s OK too. I’m not sure he really made it for the audience anyway – this is a film about Almodovar by Almodovar for Almodovar. If it manages to connect with someone else, well, that’s just a nice added bonus.
About the author
Stephen Dow is an award-winning journalist with a passion for film – not just consuming it, but thoughtfully and actively engaging with it. He believes that these modern myths have a lot to tell us about our world and ourselves. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.