On the face of it, Pedro Almodovar’s Pain and Glory is one of his most personal and autobiographical works. For the first time in his career, Almodovar has crafted a film about a director whose life and output seems to resemble his own. For the first time in his career, too, he has cast longtime collaborator Antonio Banderas as an openly, if discretely, gay character, rather than as an object of the homoerotic longing that suffuses their earlier films together. Finally, Pain and Glory is the first film in which Almodovar appears to directly examine his childhood, his relationship with his parents, and the events that led to him becoming a director. Yet this “direct” approach also leads Almodovar to double down on the more elliptical aspects of his directorial style. More specifically, the very familiarity of this narrative forces Almodovar to draw even more ingeniously on all those aspects of his style that resist narrative as we normally know it – or expose narrative as we normally know it as enmeshed in the father-fixation and patriarchal substrates that his films so studiously avoid.
As a result, Pain and Glory grows more elliptical, evocative and unconventional as it proceeds, which also means that the opening third is the most familiar part of the film. Here, we are introduced to Salvador Mallo, a director played by Antonio Banderas, who is on the cusp of old age. Mallo is lonely, melancholy and frustrated, partly because of a debilitating back condition, and partly because he doesn’t appear to have made a critically acclaimed film for years. He’s also fixated on his past, both personal and cinematic, often yearning for his earliest days of experiencing film as a child. Since this first involved outdoor cinemas, many of his formative memories of film are associated with water: “I particularly remember the films where there was water – rivers, pools, the bottom of the ocean.” In true Almodovar style, however, this association between cinema and water is also given a more playful, irreverent quality – it turns out that Mallo and his friends would often urinate by the side of their screen as movies were showing, meaning that the smell of urine is just as associated with his early encounters with cinema as the more pastoral imagery of water.
By unsettling this pastoral memory of cinema – initially quite close to that of Cinema Paradiso – Almodovar tacitly indicates that Pain and Glory won’t be about recovering cinema or childhood as a lost state of innocence. That process of recovering the past is condensed into Mallo’s relationship with Alberto, played by Asier Exteandia, an actor who worked with him earlier in his career. It takes us a while to get a handle on Alberto, who initially appears as a figure of frustration, anxiety and repressed memories. Gradually, it emerges that Alberto had the lead role in one of Mallo’s biggest films, but chose to play the role against Mallo’s instructions. While this resulted in a cult hit, it compromised the film for Mallo, who subsequently saw this film as the beginning of the end of his career. Nevertheless, both men are haunted by the film as it reaches its twentieth anniversary, especially since a Madrid cinema has decided to stage a revival screening. With posters, imagery and other paraphernalia associated with the film starting to drift back to the surface of popular consciousness, it becomes clear that the tone, style and feel of the film – even the typography and poster design – is intended to recall that of Almodovar’s first and most flamboyant era, particularly the look of Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown.
As the film proceeds, we discover that Alberto was on heroin during the production of the film, and that it was his use of heroin that, in Mallo’s opinion, compromised the film. The first part of Pain and Glory follows the two men as they work through this impasse, but the solution and outcome proceeds quicker than might be expected. First, there is very little tension or conflict when Mallo and Alberto meet for the first time in twenty years. Second, Mallo indicates his peace with Alberto by offering to try heroin then and there, hoping that it will provide some respite from his back pain. Finally, Mallo offers to give Alberto his most recent and most personal work – a dramatic monologue entitled “Pain and Glory.” Although this may be Mallo’s most significant work since his film with Alberto, and despite the fact that it is his most autobiographical work, he shows very little compunction in parting with it, even permitting Alberto to attach his name to it, and claim it as a reflection of his own life.
All of these factors undermine what initially seems like a fairly recognisable narrative – two artists, a director and an actor, struggling for control of their shared legacy. This masculine auteurist agon is further undercut by the tacit indications that both Mallo and Alberto are gay. For the most part, this is initially expressed as a matter of taste, rather than overt sexual preference – Mallo’s apartment includes a DVD of Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Mamma Roma and a catalogue of Manolo Blanco fashion, while Alberto greets him with the news that a mutual friend is in a Jean Cocteau play performed entirely by men, “just to give it that touch.” Subsumed homoerotic desire is, of course, a staple of competitive artistic narratives, but Almodovar never subsumes it quite enough for it to be a determining factor in that way, while never quite bringing it to the surface of the film either. Instead, Mallo and Alberto’s shared queerness is simply taken for granted – they may have even once slept together – giving every exchange a domesticity that precludes any any real sense of conflict.
In other words, Almodovar presents a frustrated director, a frustrated actor, and a frustrated artistic situation, but divests it of the ingredient that typically holds these ingredients together in Hollywood narrative – the assumption that men must inherently compete against other men, and against their fathers most of all. Usually, stories of tortured male artists are also stories about father-son relationships – narratives about how artistic genius sprung from a father-figure, a father-function, or an absent father-figure or father-function. In the second third of Pain and Glory, however, Almodovar artfully displaces this paternal point of reference much as he displaces the relation between Mallo and Alberto from any stable point of conflict. While we do learn a great deal about Mallo’s childhood, his father is never really in the picture, but never really absent from the picture in an emphatic manner either, instead hanging around the fringes of the action as one familial voice amongst many. Conversely, Mallo’s mother Jacinta, played by Penelope Cruz, is never defined against his father in a stable way either, as Almodovar refuses to present Mallo as having simply inherited a paternal conflict from his mother, or “identified” with his mother.
Much of this part of the film involves the family’s migration, during Mallo’s childhood, from a small town to a series of seaside caves, one of which Jacinta remakes and remodels as their new home. Mallo’s father, payed by Raul Arevalo, promises that this will provide them with a better life, and even extols the virtues of being a cave-dweller, momentarily suggesting a primitive masculine ideal that is dispelled the moment that he arrives. While Mall’s father never lives up this ideal, his failure to do so is never presented as a tragedy either, let alone as the kind of paternal tragedy that might fuel his son’s artistic career. Instead, Mallo’s father simply drifts to the side of the action, as Mallo himself starts to become a father-figure himself to a young illiterate man who lives in the caves as well. While teaching him the alphabet, Mallo has his first real homoerotic desires, but they are never defined against his father, instead depending on his occupation of a semi-paternal space that his father inhabits in a similarly incomplete way. Instead of homoerotic desire being an affront to, or a “critique” of patriarchy, it is simply folded into patriarchy, presented as too inextricable from patriarchal desire to ever form a stable point of conflict.
Once again, then, the conflicts that might be expected of this kind of artistic origins film are displaced and dispersed. Not only do we have a frustrated director, but we have a frustrated director who is homosexual, and yet this is never permitted to draw him into direct competitive conflict with either his leading man or his father. Nor does it draw him into direct conflict with broader ideals of Spanish masculinity, as Almodovar indicates by placing a photograph of “Our Noble Spain” in the background during much of this critical exchange between Mallo and the illiterate young man. Of all Almodovar’s recent films, Pain and Glory is perhaps closes to Broken Embraces in how elegantly it displaces the paternal myth of origins that underpins so many biographical films, and kunstleroman in particular, instead opting for a more elliptical and elegant structure in which the past comes into focus gradually, provisionally and poignantly – and in which queerness consists precisely in rejecting the antagonistic take on the past that so often propels more patriarchal narratives.
Put bluntly, then, the past is never framed as another man to be competed with and overcome in Almodovar’s vision. This is especially clear during the staging of “Pain and Glory,” which turns out to be largely preoccupied with cinema, and which takes place as a dramatic monologue with a blank cinema screen in the background. During the staging of the monologue, we learn that Mallo lost his greatest love to heroin use – or thought he lost him – which is why he was so traumatised when Alberto starting using heroin on the set of the film they worked on together. As it turns out, however, Mallo’s ex-lover Federico, played by Leonardo Sbaraglia, is alive, and is actually in the audience on the night that the monologue debuts. Rather than dying from heroin, as Mallo had assumed, Federico moved to South America and got clean, before marrying a woman and having a family. During an extraordinarily touching reunion, Federico comes to Mallo’s apartment on the night after the play, revealing himself to be the lost object that Mallo has been longing for over the last twenty years, and the most important figure in his entire life, even though it has taken us almost the entire film to be able to recognise this, and to realise his emotional significance.
Even at this point, however, Almodovar refuses to present Federico or Mallo in conflict, or to present Federico as a past entity that needs to be surmounted and overcome. First, and most obviously, there is no animosity between the two men, despite the fact that Mallo is clearly traumatised by the sheer presence of Federico, so long had he waited to see and hold him again. Second, the fact that Federico is married with a family prevents him resuming a romantic anatagonism with Mallo in any conventional way. Yet in a further twist, it turns out that one of Federico’s sons is gay, and that he has confided his own (presumably) bisexual nature to him, going so far as to invoke his previous relationship with Mallo as a source of hope and comfort to his son – proof that queer love can be as enduring, and often more enduring, as its straight counterpart. At the very moment at which Federico is on the cusp of being a father-figure who needs to be disposed of, and a cipher for Mallo’s own father, he thus invites Mallo into his family, and frames him as a surrogate father-figure for his son. Once again, this artifully disperses the competitive male ethos that typically attends films about directors and other artists reflecting upon their lives, works and careers.
Of course, that absence of competitive conflict just makes this scene between Mallo and Federico all the more moving. Without paternal pathos to ground it, the elegiac register of the film is more open to comedy, banality and irreverence, giving Mallo’s melancholy more depth and complexity in the process. At times, this reminded me of the tenor of films released during the AIDS crisis, and their central quandary – how to deal with loss at a time when tragedy itself was defined and co-opted by precisely the powers that permitted the AIDS crisis to happen? The AIDS crisis so often involved figures who were rejected by parents, fathers and the entire patriarchal-industrial complex, but who for that very reason were also unable to buy into the narrative of paternal rejection that flooded mass media in the wake of Vietnam. For that reason, the ailments in Pain and Glory – Alberto’s heroin addiction, Salvador’s ailing back – often partake of the logic of AIDS, or the structures of feeling around AIDS, especially as they age and tire the characters involved. The lesson of AIDS in Almodovar’s world is that queer people still can’t grow old and approach death with dignity, given the way dignity is defined by mass media, but for that very reason they should aim to flee the monolithic “reckoning” with the past that conventionally comprises dignity.
In that sense, Pain and Glory is a line of flight from the summative, competitive and agonistic reckonings with the past that typically comprise an artistic biography, even as the past is always present as a source of sustenance, melancholy and ambivalent ramification. The result is not unlike the bleeding of past and present that sustains In Search of Lost Time, as Almodovar, like Proust, aims for a voice that is less confessional than a probing, restless and insatiable critique of the confessional mode. While “Pain and Glory” may be Mallo’s most personal work, he doesn’t want any credit for it, and in fact uses it to retreat further from the spotlight, observing to Alberto that “it’s a confessional text, I don’t want to be identified.” Accordingly, not just his name he redacts from the monologue, but the cinematic heritage that might be expected as a point of reference as an established auteur. Rather than taking us through his influences, Scorsese-style, as a corpus that had to be absorbed, appreciated and ultimately transcended, Mallo’s monologue riffs around a blank cinematic screen, continually flickering imaginary images across its surface, but refusing to frame it as a space that he categorically, comprehensively or competitively tried to conquer.
During these moments of the film, I realized how often the confessional mode is a way of coming to terms with father-figures, or the failures of paternal aspirations, both of which are eluded and sidestepped here, in one of the deftest and slyest moves in Almodovar’s career. You might even say that Mallo’s monologue takes the blank cinema screen as a cipher for abstract paternal expectations, and then refuses to command the screen in response to those expectations, whether by filling it, possessing it, or insisting on its blankness and absence as a statement in itself. For at no point in “Pain and Glory” does the empty screen ever become an avant-garde or experimental gesture, instead partaking of a domesticity and familiarity as the monologue proceeds, albeit one that depends precisely on never having a stable image or projection attached to it. In one of their final encounters, Mallo’s mother, played in her old age by Julieta Serrano, gives Mallo a egg that she used to darn socks when he was young. Both an image of his lack of reproductive futurity, but also of a deeper domestic continuity, it poises the film, and its vision of queerness, in a state of semi-continuity with the past and future – poises it enough to eventually and finally displace the competitive masculine narrative that Almodovar has eluded through its entire duration.
No surprise, then, that the final shot of the film takes place in an elusive space between film and world, as Almodovar returns to one of Mallo’s “formative” memories with his mother, only to reveal it to be a scene within his own film, “cutting” for Cruz to get up and stretch before the final fade comes down. A fictional version of a real scene within a fictional film, this slippery space between diegesis and non-diegesis is Almodovar’s form of post-cinema or post-continuity, and results, among other things, in arguably Banderas’ best performance for Almodovar, and certainly his most heartfelt, since the nature of Pain and Glory makes it more inextricable from their working relationship than any other in their shared careers. And Pain and Glory is ultimately as much a tribute to Banderas as a reflection by Almodovar on his own career – or, rather, an affirmation that these partnerships, collaborations and connections resonate much more than the competitive ethos of typical artistic narratives and trajectories, making for one of the most generous visions in Almodovar’s body of work.