Tuesday, November 19, 2019

Pedro Almodovar Rips From His Past To Create Modern-Day Gem Pain and Glory

The past tends to echo well into the future in ways we sometimes can't even comprehend as well as in ways that can prove detrimental to the present. Acclaimed writer/director Pedro Almodovar contemplates this matter thoroughly through his newest movie Pain and Glory. The lead character of this production, Salvador Mallo (Antonio Banderas), is clearly a stand-in for Almodovar to a degree (how accurate he is to the actual man is something I cannot state confidently) given that he's, like Almodovar, a middle-aged filmmaker of a notable stature who attended a religious school as a child, was impacted heavily by cinema at a young age and spent his formative adult years in Madrid, Spain. 

What else is going on with Mallo beyond just having a number of similarities to Almodovar? Well, he's stuck in a rut as a person. He's given up on the idea of ever writing again, his body is giving him all kinds of pain, he's started using heroin on a regular basis and the prospect of reaching out and connecting with other people terrifies him. While we see these woes of modern-day Mallo play out, we also see extended flashback sequences showing a young Mallo living with his mother, Jacinta (Penelope Cruz). Interestingly, Almodovar doesn't use these sequences set in the past to create easy answers for where Mallo's modern-day psychological state comes from.

On the contrary, there's an intriguing sense of randomness to the majority of the memories of the past that run into Mallo's head. A day where he washed clothes in the river with his Mom and other local women, for instance, is the very first flashback scene and its significance is merely to juxtapose a happier time from his past against his forlorn modern-day circumstances. Pain and Glory is aware of the aforementioned fact of the past reverberating into the present, but it usually does so through messier unexpected means, like a painting of Mallo drawn by a guy retiling his childhood home managing to somehow get into his hands decades after it was drawn.

Refusing to create tidy connective tissue between the past and present allows these scenes set in the past to work as just intriguing bits of character development rather than have them be entirely at the service of providing easy explanations for what's happening to Mallo in his modern-day life. It also allows for a more complex view of the past to be developed, Mallo is a guy at once obsessed with parts of his past (like his problems with one of his movies that's getting a new theatrical screening) as well as somebody who refuses to really gaze into and confront the past (like the way he bottles up his emotions over the passing of his Mother). When it comes to this kind of scenario, the way of navigating out of your internal hole is a complex one and the intricacies of that are reflected well both Almodovar's writing as a whole in Pain and Glory as well as in how he specifically handles the relationship between the flashback and modern-day sequences.

Almodovar's screenplay here proves to be a noteworthy examination of the relationship between our past and our present and the personal touches he brings to the proceedings, such as an extended monologue written by Mallo referring to how he associates cinema with the smells of urine and summer, ensure that Pain and Glory can stand out with its own identity apart from the numerous other movies ruminating on similar thematic material. The scripts characters aren't quite as strong as its exploration of its central theme, but even that's more of a quibble rather than a fatal flaw related to one or two supporting players (chiefly Mallo's former leading man Alberto Crespo played by Asier Etxeandia) that don't feel as fleshed-out as they could be.

On the other hand, the direction from Almodovar and cinematography by Jose Luis Alcaine is uniformly great, especially in the way their work behind the camera reinforces the sterile nature of Mallo's present-day apartment and the more tactile textures found in the characters childhood home. Through just this detail alone, the heavy level of contrasts between the present-day and flashback sequences gets a fantastic visual manifestation. Of course, no review talking about the positives in Pain and Glory would be complete without praise for Antonio Banderas. All the hype surrounding his work here is very much true, Banderas is utterly fantastic here, especially in communicating what a shell of a man Mallo is. The very act of interacting with others is quietly communicated as a difficult one through the tiniest touches in the acting of Banderas. He lends a consistently human quality to Pain and Glory's exploration of one man's relationship between the past and the present.

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