Pain and Glory Film Review: Banderas Stars in Almodóvar Gay Drama

Enjoying its Canadian premiere at the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival, Pain and Glory is the newest offering from celebrated Spanish director Pedro Almodóvar.

Ranked as one of the best 2019 gay TIFF films, Pain and Glory focusses its story on aging Spanish director Salvador Mallo, played by Antonio Banderas.

In the Pain and Glory film, Spain’s most acclaimed LGBT director weaves a self reflective plot featuring flashbacks to the protagonists childhood. Scenes cut between Salvador Mallo’s privileged present in Madrid with his poor boyhood upbringing alongside his doting mother, played by Penélope Cruz.

Pedro Almodóvar has one of the most iconic portfolio’s of queer cinema, including Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, All About My Mother and Talk To Her. Fans of the director’s signature style will find happiness in his latest gay drama.

Spanish director Pedro Almodóvar and the cast of Pain and Glory.
Spanish director Pedro Almodóvar and the cast of Pain and Glory.

Pain and Glory Film Review

Pain and Glory is a Spanish language film which tells a series of reencounters experienced by Salvador Mallo, a celebrated film director who is experiencing physical, mental and emotional decline.

The gay director lives in a lavish home set in a trendy Madrid neighbourhood. The interior is outfitted with bespoke furniture and art pieces even the Guggenheim in Bilbao is keen to borrow. Almodóvar splices the story with flashbacks to Salvador’s childhood in the 60s, when he emigrated with his poor parents to a small village in Valencia.

Throughout Pain and Glory, the audience discovers Salvador’s first desire (cinema), first adult love in the 80s (he’s gay) and the lasting pangs of a painful breakup. Like a true artist, Salvador finds that writing is his only therapy. He hopes the process will help him forget the unforgettable, though he still struggles in a depressive void.

Afflicted with many ailments, the worst of which makes him unable to continue his filmmaking career. Both his physical and mental condition no longer allow it. In his mind, if he can’t film again, his life has no meaning. 

Pain and Glory discusses creation, the difficulty of separating it from one’s own life and about the passions that give it meaning and hope. In recovering his past, Salvador finds the urgent need to recount it, and in that need he also finds his salvation. 

Penélope Cruz plays the protagonist's young mother in Pain and Glory.
Penélope Cruz plays the protagonist’s young mother in Pain and Glory.

Pain and Glory’s Past

Present day Salvador lives in solitary inside the comfort of his luxurious home in Madrid. His daily mixture of medications, along with a newfound preference for smoking heroin, spins Pain and Glory’s protagonist into a drowsy state.

During these blissed out stoner moments, Salvador is transported to a time in his life that he never visited as a filmmaker. The families matriarch is played by Spanish starlet Penélope Cruz. The majority of Salvador’s childhood memories take place during the tumultuous time when his poor parents move to rural Spain. Their new home is located in a rustic white-washed cave. Almodóvar beautifully shares a struggling families enthusiasm to make the most of their situation.

Salvador is recognized as a star singer in the local boys choir and later develops into a passionate reader and writer. When a local couple ask if they can pay him to write a letter for them, his mother chimes in with a mutually beneficial plan. She promises Salvador will tutor the illiterate boyfriend, if he’ll help renovate her crumbling kitchen.

His mother realizes her sons unique talent but can not afford to send him to school. The local priest offers to educate him for free at the seminary but the young boy resists, rejecting the idea of dedicating his life to a religion.

The drugged out director’s visions of the past also reveal his first encounter with sexual desire. After the young boy tutors the handsome twenty something year old they develop a bond. The families somber cave slowly transforms into a magical home as the eager student’s reading and writing improve.

One day he takes a break from plastering tile over the kitchen sink to draw a portrait of young Salvador who sits quietly reading a book in the sun. Suddenly feeling tired from heat stroke, Salvador rests in his bed while his plaster covered student takes a sponge bath. When he’s summoned to grab a towel, he looks up at his naked neighbour and faints from the beauty of his body.

Director Pedro Almodóvar with actors Asier Etxeandia and Antonio Banderas.
Director Pedro Almodóvar with actors Asier Etxeandia and Antonio Banderas.

The Conclusion of a Pedro Almodóvar Film Trilogy

Pain and Glory is an unintentional trilogy, the third and concluding chapter that has taken Pedro Almodóvar 32 years to complete. The first two parts are the films Law of Desire and Bad Education. Each of the three films feature a male protagonist who is a film director, with desire and cinematic fiction as the pillars of the story.

The film Pain and Glory reveals new themes and two love stories that have left their mark on the main character. Two stories determined by time and fate, which are resolved in fiction.

The first story is when 9 year old Salvador first experienced the impulse of gay desire, fainting to the floor, in awe of a beautiful nude male body. The second story takes place in the 80s, when Spain was celebrating the newfound freedom that comes with democracy. Salvador secretly writes a monologue, which he calls Addiction, in an attempt to try and forget his most meaningful love stories.

Throughout the film Pain and Glory Antonio Banderas acts alongside Asier Etxeandia, who plays one of his former actors, Alberto Crespo. Salvador knocks on the actors door after not speaking to him for over 30 years, keen to reconnect as their celebrated film Sabor is being given a cinematic retrospective. During their reunion, the down-on-his-luck drug addicted actor offers Salvador a first taste of heroin, which they soon both use regularly to help numb their situations.

Antonio Banderas Says Heart Attack Helped Create Pain and Glory.

When Alberto discovers Salvador has written an intimate monologue about addiction and lost love, he’s desperate to take the stage and revitalize his career. After much hesitation, the director relents, insisting Alberto take credit for the story as he doesn’t want anyone to recognize it’s his.

We watch Alberto perform The Addiction as a one man show in an intimate theatre. The story tells the tale of Salvador’s first love, a relationship with a boy named Federico, which lasted 3 years. After the performance we learn the crying man in the audience, Federico, by total happenstance, is Salvador’s real lover from the story.

The story of The Addiction alludes to Salvador and Federico’s young love. It also explains the reason they separated, even when they still loved each other. In truly magical Almodóvar fashion, the performance of the monologue makes it possible for the two former lovers to meet again. Hours later they meet in Salvador’s glamorous apartment, reconnecting over lost time.

We learn that Federico now lives in Argentina, and reveals that Salvador was his last gay relationship. He now has a wife and children who live in Buenos Aires. Salvador gets teary at the news, and the audience can see clearly that he’s still tenderly in love with his ex, even after all these years. The duo share a swoon-worthy smooch, bristling their grey haired beards at an attempt to enjoy a glimpse of their impassioned past.

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Antonio Banderas plays a gay filmmaker living in Madrid who grapples with physical and emotional pain.
Antonio Banderas plays a gay filmmaker living in Madrid who grapples with physical and emotional pain.

Pain and Glory is a Reflection on Almodóvar’s Own Life

Why is Pain and Glory such a special film? Almodóvar says the script is self-reference, “If you write about a director, and your work consists of directing films, it’s impossible not to think of yourself and not take your experiences as a reference. It was the most practical. My house is the house where Antonio Banderas’ character lives, the furniture in the kitchen — and the rest of the furnishings — are mine or have been reproduced for the occasion and the paintings that hang on its walls,” says the celebrated gay Spanish director.

Almodóvar adds, “We tried to make Antonio’s image, especially his hair, look like mine. The shoes and many of the clothes also belong to me, and the colours of his clothing. When there was some corner to fill on the set, the art director sent his assistant to my house to get some of the many objects with which I live. This is the most autobiographical aspect of the film and it turned out to be very comfortable for the crew. As a matter of fact, Director of Photography, José Luis Alcaine came to the house several times to see the light at different hours of the day, so as to reproduce it later in the studio.”

Over the course of the film Pain and Glory, Salvador experiences three periods in life: 1960s, the 80s and present day. Almodóvar identifies with all of those eras, “I know the places and the feelings the character goes through. I never lived in a cave and I never fell in love with a labourer when I was a child, for example, although both things could have happened.”

Pain and Glory Cast and Crew Q&A at the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival.

Salvador’s Past Returns as a Painting

While waiting at a doctor’s office Salvador’s friend shares an invitation to an exhibition of anonymous popular art. He’s shocked when he sees it as the cover features a watercolour of a boy sitting in an interior, whitewashed patio, surrounded by flowerpots, reading a book.

While laying patiently through a CAT scan, he realizes it is a portrait of him as a child, drawn by his first gay crush. He attends the art exhibit, buying the painting and later discovering the artist, and his former student, had written a note to him on the back.

Salvador experiences another pained realization, that the neighbour he longed for had actually reached out to connect by mailing the finished painting to his home. It turns out he was in seminary at the time, realizing his mother hid the note as she thought the two boys were “getting tender with each other.”

Salvador recounts some of the last visits he had with his mother before her passing. She clearly disproves of his gay sexual identity and is bothered when her life is inserted into his films for neighbours to gawk at. For gay film fans, the tender moments Salvador shares with his mother are especially relatable. Members of the LGBT community regularly fight for acceptance in their families. Almodóvar proves, even the most famous director in Spain can get teary eyed longing for a pleased parent.

In the film Pain and Glory, filmmaker Pedro Almodóvar beautifully showcases the emotional and physical trauma many gay men face today. His story of Salvador offers a window into LGBT trauma, proving that pain can be erased only if we face it.

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Pain and Glory

An aging filmmaker played by Antonio Banderas grapples with an uncertain future and the circumstances that shaped his successful but troubled life, in Pedro Almodóvar’s self-reflexive consideration of identity and desire.

Date Created: October 4, 2019

Runtime: 113 min

  • Genre:
  • Drama
  • Producer:
  • Agustín Almodóvar
  • Director:
  • Pedro Almodóvar
  • Writer:
  • Cast:
  • Leonardo Sbaraglia,
  • Nora Navas,
  • Julieta Serrano,
  • Antonio Banderas,
  • Asier Etxeandia,
  • Penélope Cruz,
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