Why does it seem like the most profound thing a European director can do is reminisce about being horny? Ah, life, she is beautiful, no? Maybe it all goes back to Fellini.
In a similar vein as Paolo Sorrentino’s Youth, from 2015, the latest film from Oscar-winning Spanish director Pedro Almodóvar (All About My Mother, Talk To Her, Bad Eduction, Volver, etc), Pain and Glory, involves a famous artist protagonist experiencing the degradations of age while reliving some of the boners of youth (Freudian!). Pain & Glory isn’t as pretentious as the heterosexual-themed Youth (which starred Michael Caine as a retired composer vacationing in the Alps), it’s more just esoteric. As Almodóvar depicts a protagonist “struggling to separate the act of creation from the act of remembering,” he seems to struggle with it himself. Pain & Glory is a film full of lovingly-shot memories that, taken together, don’t really complement each other.
Antonio Banderas, in handsome greying beard and fashionable wrist beads, plays Salvador Mallo, a famous movie director who we’re given to understand hasn’t worked in a few years. “I always thought you would work forever,” an actress friend tells him in an early scene.
Salvador has various health problems that have kept him from working, communicated to us via narration over a weird sequence of animated graphics — depression, anxiety, chronic back pain, digestive distress. The graphics promise to tell us how these problems all started, but it’s a flawed history, because it explains almost nothing. Ahh, so he has back pain and depression because he has had back pain and depression for a long time. Wow, NOW I get it.
In practice, this means we get many shots of Banderas meticulously crushing up a melange of pills into a powder he mixes with water and drinks with a pained grimace. On paper I would’ve told you that there aren’t many things more dull to watch than someone struggling from depression and back pain, and though Almodóvar can compose a beautiful shot, he doesn’t do much to convince me otherwise here.
“Salva” learns that a local theater wants him to speak at a retrospective of one of his films, which leads him to reconnect with the film’s star, Alberto Crespo (Asier Etxeandia). The two apparently had a falling out over Alberto’s performance in the film 32 years ago and haven’t spoken since. But lately, Salva says he has “learned to appreciate it more over time.”
Alberto reluctantly lets Salvador in for a drink, and decides to treat himself to a little heroin, freebased off some foil with a straw — you know, just regular aging Boomer stuff. He tells Salvador not to judge him, and instead Salvador asks to join him. Heroin? Now? For the first time? After all these years? You crazy for this one, Salva!
Salvador’s first and subsequent heroin nods lead him to all sorts of extended reveries, mostly flashbacks to his childhood under Franco — as the son of an unhappy mother (played by Penelope Cruz) trying to make the best of a cave house in a pueblo. In exchange for some help whitewashing her dirt walls and making the underground space seem more like a home, Salvador’s mother promises that Salvador will help an illiterate laborer (César Vicente) to read and write. Pre-teen Salva quickly bonds with the young man, culminating in a scene where he peeps on the nicely hung young man as he bathes. Ah, to be horny again!
Salvador’s mother tries to get him sent off to seminary against his will, where Salvador becomes, as per a different, earlier flashback, a singing prodigy — yet another detail that complicates without illuminating. Meanwhile, present-day Salvador dabbles in heroin and while he nods, Alberto sneaks into his computer and reads one of Salvador’s abandoned stories. The story, called “Addiction,” is about Salva’s first love, Federico, in 1980s Madrid, who Salva eventually has to break up with over Federico’s heroin addiction. Alberto begs Salvador to let him perform the story as a play (even though it seems like it would be a bad play?).
Salvador’s discovery of his own sexuality is probably the most interesting thread in his belated journey of self-discovery, but as a whole his revelations seem oddly disconnected. His mother, the church, homosexuality, singing, pain, depression, a cave… Salvador’s present-day struggles with depression, back pain, and his odd choking malady would make a lot more sense if Salvador had himself been an opiate addict. Instead, we’re told, it was the two men in his life who were doing the heroin. Can one have a sympathetic heroin addiction? It turns out Salva has a condition where his body gradually produces calcified growths on his bones, and one has been pushing against his esophagus, and that’s why he’s been choking. It sounds like something a real heroin addict would invent as an excuse.
All of this Freudian self-analysis into the roots of Salva’s problems and it turns out it was a… bone disease? It would be kind of funny if this was the joke, but I don’t think it is. Salva’s flashbacks are so disconnected they don’t really combine to make him a more compelling character. The film offers meaningless clichés to explain large chunks of his life (“the cinema saved me”) and not enough information about Salva’s movies or about Salva and Alberto’s falling out to really be invested.
So we’re left with a comfortable, yet vaguely unhappy protagonist with a series of disconnected gripes. Sure, okay. Turns out the boners were more interesting than the bone disease.