Pain and Glory reinvents the struggling artist story

Photo Credit: Zoe Archambault

Photo Credit: Zoe Archambault

After years of collaborations spanning across director Pedro Almodóvar’s 21-film catalogue, it’s fitting that Antonio Banderas has come to play a stand-in for Almodóvar in Pain and Glory.

Starring as depressed filmmaker Salvador Mallo, a man in both a creative and emotional rut, Banderas broods in a kitschy, radiant red apartment modelled specifically to look like Almodóvar’s. Salvador suffers from a multitude of issues, leaving him in constant physical pain (and we won’t get started on his dealings with emotional pain), rendering him incapable of furthering his already prolific filmmaking career. He can’t even bring himself to attend showings of his old work.

Narratives about an artist’s struggle to create art are plentiful and repetitive, often dangerous in their inception as they teeter on narcissistic self-infatuation quite easily. Almodóvar’s unique artistic flair, however, saves Pain and Glory from such a fate by making it stand out from the rest. It’s distinct and earnest.

Not to mention that Almodóvar’s usual colourful fingerprints are all over this film. The set design and cinematography — even the character’s clothing choices — are bright and unforgettable. Almodóvar crafts shots that are never anything short of painterly.

This aspect of Almodóvar’s filmmaking is figurative, too; the characters all exude such strong, unmovable personalities, brought to life with robust performances from each actor.

Although a linear narrative is weaved together from the bits and pieces of Salvador’s life, the film consists of abrupt cuts to different eras of his life, scattered but nostalgic. As jarring as these changes in atmosphere could be, Almodóvar utilizes this technique to invite spectators into Salvador’s mental state: when we’re not seeing real time, we’re engaging with his thoughts and memories, everything that led up to where he is now.

The major issue with Pain and Glory is how reserved it often felt. For a film that is loosely autobiographical, a film that intends to penetrate the depths of its lead character’s psyche, Pain and Glory felt afraid to dig too deep. The film consists of an ongoing chain of events in Salvador’s life dating back as far as childhood; yet, Salvador leaps from one event to the next with seemingly no heavy impact from the prior one, save for the fact it caused the next event to transpire.

We spend a brief period of time getting to know Salvador’s first homosexual lover, clearly a landmark in his personal history due to the amount of time he spends mulling the relationship over and integrating it into his films. Despite this, the man is out of the picture the moment he’s offscreen. Their present-day interactions find Salvador recalling the first time a flame was ignited within him by another man, but even that memory remains just that: a memory. A brief period of screentime to further develop Salvador’s character. But, for what reason? Where do these recollections leave him now? There is no clarity as to how they contribute to the film’s ending.

Story fragments being picked up, then suddenly dropped for the next one are no doubt a result of the filmmaking model of placing the audience inside Salvador’s thoughts. While it works conceptually, it’s rather unsatisfying for a viewer. Events in Salvador’s life simply accumulate; they inspire no final thoughts, just a pile of forgotten ones. The film is enjoyable regardless but, by Almodóvar standards, this choice makes it feel restrained and aimless.

Somewhere within his 21 films, Almodóvar developed a stylish, memorable way of filmmaking. Pain and Glory lives up to the rest in its self-assuredness and distinctly Almodóvarian stylistic flourish. There is a bold confidence that permeates Pain and Glory, but no pay-off in the end. The film revolves around the concept of artistic creation as self-creation, but it feels as though we don’t even get a final picture after watching the process.

Pain and Glory is presented by the Brock University Film Society (BUFS). It will have one last screening at The Film House in the FirstOntario Performing Arts Centre on November 19 at 7:00 p.m.

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