Wednesday, October 23, 2019

Pain and Glory

Impressive Biography-Fiction Interactions 
Review by Ken Burke

I invite you to join me on a regular basis to see how my responses to current cinematic offerings compare to the critical establishment, which I’ll refer to as either the CCAL (Collective Critics at Large) if they agree with me or the OCCU (Often Cranky Critics Universe) if they choose to disagree.

                   Pain and Glory (Pedro Almodóvar)   rated R

“Executive Summary” (no spoilers): Here we find a famous Spanish film director (modeled consciously on aspects of Almodóvar’s life [including shooting some scenes of this character’s home in our actual director’s residence in Madrid]) is dealing with myriad problems, physical and emotional, all of which are hindering his attempts to find a new project to focus on.  We also see frequent flashbacks to his childhood in a rural town where he had a closer connection to his mother than his father, may also have had a significant life experience with a young man doing home repair work for the family, then as a young adult himself we see flashes of Salvador developing his cinematic career while also enjoying, then losing a lover’s relationship with Federico.  In the present time, a well-respected, early film of Salvador’s, Sabor, has been restored, is being readied for a premiere where he’s asked to speak along with his principal actor, Alberto, even though they’ve not been in contact for over 30 years because Salvador felt Alberto’s performance was hindered by his heroin habit.  Salvador reaches out for reconciliation with Alberto which happens over shared heroin smoking compromising their intended appearance at the premiere, leading to another clash between them, although Salvador makes amends by working with Alberto to fashion one of the former’s short stories into a 1-man play for the latter which proves popular but also accidently draws into the audience Salvador’s long-lost-lover, Federico, who’s then put in touch with Salvador.  Beyond that, other interesting situations evolve, but to discuss them here would get us into the dreaded realm of Spoilers (unless you don’t care about that sort of ruined plot exposition—although that’s definitely not as crucial as wine or cheese spoilage), so either read on fully below or seek out an option to see this marvelous film for yourself, although that may have to be via video because it’s not yet (probably won’t ever be) available in very many domestic theaters.

Here’s the trailer:  (Use the full screen button in the image’s lower right to enlarge it; activate that same button on the full screen’s lower right or your “esc” keyboard key to return to normal size.)

If you can abide plot spoilers read on, but as this blog’s intended for those who’ve seen the film—or want to save some bucks—to help any of you who want to learn more details yet avoid important plot-reveals I’ll identify any give-away sentences/sentence-clusters like this: 
⇒The first and last words will be noted with arrows and red.⇐ OK, now continue on if you prefer.

What Happens: (Many crucial scenes in this film are flashbacks to when the main character, filmmaker Salvador Mallo [Antonio Banderas], was a 9-year-old-boy in the 1960s, but rather than trying to integrate those needed intrusions into the flow of the current-day-plot [works fine on screen, can get a bit confusing in print] I’ll note the content of these flashbacks in one swoop here, then move on to adult [roughly age 65] Salvador’s story).  What we encounter on screen after some beautiful opening credits shots backed by swirling colors of various hues (you get a small taste of it in the trailer) is a brief scene of young Salva (Mom’s nickname for her son [played by Asier Flores in these earlier-set-instances]) at a river where his mother, Jacinta Mallo (Penélope Cruz), and 3 other women are washing clothes, happily singing.  Later, Jacinta and Salva leave their village to move to another one, Paterna (Valencia region), where husband/father Venancio Mallo (Raúl Arévalo) has found work, although the travelers’ stopover in a town along the way results in them having to sleep in the train station because a local festival has occupied all hotel rooms.  When they arrive at their new location, Jacinta’s disappointedly-stunned when she finds their (only-affordable) home is built like a cave with light entering only through the front door and a large skylight (just an opening in the roof with wire mesh so rain also comes in).  Jacinta does her best to fix up the place, decorate it some, doing most of these improvements herself as Venancio’s work (or a bar) takes him away somewhere much of the time.  Then, through fortuitous circumstance a local young man, Eduardo (César Vicente), an illiterate handyman, seeks Salva’s help in writing letters for him which Jacinta agrees to (with an expansion into teaching Eduardo to read and write) in return for help in making repairs/upgrades in her kitchen along with whitewashing all the walls to help brighten up the place.  While we have to piece together the chronology of this part of the film at times, we learn Jacinta’s determined for Salva to get an education beyond what’s he’s already capable of so his future won’t be as a laborer, as is the case with many of the other males we’ve met thus far; therefore, she insists—over his initial resistance—Salva attend classes at the local seminary, as she assures him he won’t have to enter the priesthood (he was no interest in it) when his schooling’s finished.  Once he’s enrolled, he impresses the clergy with his angelic singing voice so Salva actually spends most of his time in choir rehearsal rather than in classes (he admits in other scenes his true education—including geography and anatomy—came in traveling the world as a young adult as his filmmaking career began to blossom) even though he somehow passes all of his tests.  There are also 2 more flashbacks of consequential note occurring nearer the film’s end, but I’ll discuss them a bit later on.

 In terms of what we actually see on screen, the first shot after those stunning opening credits is of adult Salvador completely under water in a pool (then he surfaces) as part of therapy to help with his many ailments.  In the process of some magnificently-colored, flowing illustrations with voiceover commentary from Salvador, we learn how this famous artist constantly deals with pain, both physical (especially backaches, headaches) and emotional (depression, anxiety) resulting in a state of creative block (he hasn’t been able to find subject matter for a new cinematic project) plus the challenge of being asked to attend the premiere of a restored version of his film, Sabor (“Flavor”), from 32 years ago where he’d have to appear with lead actor Alberto Crespo (Asier Etxeandia), although conflicts between them during the filming led to estrangement ever since.  In order to make their public joint appearance possible, Salvador surprises Alberto by showing up at his home one day, more of less forcing a reconciliation, aided by both of them smoking heroin (a reason for the conflicts in the past regarding Alberto’s constantly being high on the set), a new experience for Salvador (actually, it helps initiate some of the flashbacks) in his quest for pain relief.  Slightly later (even though the premiere’s in just 3 weeks), Alberto shows up at Salvador’s home in Madrid, they smoke some more, Salvador has one of his mysterious choking attacks then dozes while Alberto pokes around on his computer, opens a file with a short story, “Addiction,” which Alberto wants to stage as a 1-man-short-play as a means of reviving his own sagging career, but Salvador resists.  At the premiere, Salvador’s very nervous about coming on stage for a Q & A so he smokes more, then calls the moderator from a back room, claims he’s sick at home, but agrees to take questions from the audience over the phone.  In the process he says he didn’t care for Alberto’s performance years ago but now sees, respects more depth in it which angers Alberto who storms out after the call’s completed.  In a gesture of apology, Salvador agrees to the Addiction play (writing credited to Alberto as Salvador doesn’t want the content to be recognized as his own), which is a success for Alberto with the surprise of a happenstance decision to attend by Federico Delgado (Leonardo Sbaraglia) where he’s overwhelmed by the content—Salvador’s memories of movies he loved as a child (in an open-air-theater smelling of piss and jasmine), then his young-adult-affair with Marcelo, a fictional version of Federico (who reveals this to Alberto after the show).

 Alberto gives Federico Salvador’s contact info; he calls, the 2 long-ago-lovers meet for pleasant drinks and conversation at Salvador’s home where they discuss how Federico’s heroin habit of the time was a major factor in their breakup (also giving us better insight on Salvador’s disgust with Alberto’s drug use during the shooting of Sabor as well as the ironic twist of how Salvador’s now become a frequent user himself).  Federico explains how after their new-love-travels to Africa, Cuba, Mexico, he wandered off to Argentina to work in his uncle’s Buenos Aires restaurant, kicked his habit (the stuff was no longer available to him), is now married with children.  After they share a farewell kiss, Salvador flushes his heroin down the toilet, meets with his doctor to get help with his various problems, has tests revealing his choking comes from a rare bone growth from his spine almost blocking his esophagus which he gets corrected by means of an operation⇒At this point we have another flashback, of Salvador talking to his elderly, ailing mother (Julieta Serrano, not looking much like an older Penélope Cruz) who surprises him by saying he wasn’t a good child; he hopes to make it up to her by taking her back to her former countryside for her last days but a sudden deteriorated condition leads to quick death in a Madrid hospital.  Back in the present, Salvador’s long-time-assistant, Mercedes (Nora Navas), takes him to an art exhibition where he buys a watercolor portrait of a boy, which another flashback shows he’s the model for this drawing by Eduardo who began the sketch one day after putting tiles in the cave-kitchen, then cleaning all the plaster off himself in a washtub, allowing young Salvador to see him fully naked whereupon the boy faints (either from sunstroke from earlier in the day or as the startling start of his sexual preferences, the reason Jacinta never gave her son the finished portrait when it was sent to their home while Salvador was away at school; how it came to be bought by the gallery owner at a Barcelona flea market no one can explain, but there is a letter to Salvador on the back of the butcher paper from Eduardo thanking the boy for helping him become literate).  In the film’s final scene we see once again the younger selves of Jacinta and Salvador sleeping in the train station, but now the camera pulls back to reveal this is being shot as a film directed by elder Salvador, who’s now regained his creative spark.  (What's unclear is whether shots we’ve previously seen acted by Cruz and Flores are actually all from Salvador’s new film about his childhood or—more intriguing to me—if they’re still adult Salvador’s memories but now with these present-day actors' images superimposed on how the mother and son actually looked in these earlier-day-activities.)⇐

So What? Ever since I first encountered Almodóvar’s hilarious Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown (1988) I’ve been a dedicated fan, first reaching back to some of his work released prior to Women …, then trying to stay current ever since with particularly good (if fleeting) memories about High Heels (1991), All About My Mother (1999; Oscar winner for Best Foreign Language Film, along with a long list of other accolades), Talk to Her (2002; Oscar for Best Original Screenplay [although I’ve always wondered if Academy voters were largely deciding based on what they read in the subtitles—not always accurate, let alone encompassing needed nuance—because I doubt many of them truly experienced this script in its original Spanish, nor did I, despite my feeble attempts with learning this language so common in both Texas and California for me; accordingly, I'm more inquisitive than judgmental here about Oscar voters' tendencies] plus an even longer list of other honors), Bad Education (2004), Volver (2006; Cannes Film Festival award for Best Screenplay along with another enormous list of awards/nominations), The Skin I Live In (2011; very disturbing, at the psychological horror level); however, rather than trying to call up specific-but-foggy-memories of any of these previous films I can refer you to my detailed comments about the absurdly-funny I’m So Excited (2013; 3½ stars-review in our August 8, 2013 posting [layout’s terrible; this blog was still mostly a work in progress at that point]) along with the touching drama, Julieta (2016; 4 stars-review in our January 18, 2017 posting).  Certainly, Pain and Glory ranks with his best as a quiet meditation on the human physical/emotional challenges of aging (Pedro’s now 70, as of this September 25; Banderas is only 59 [as I’m approaching 72 I have more legitimacy in making such age distinctions] but suffered a heart attack in recent years, which he subtly brings to the gravitas of this current role, helping him win the honored 2019 Cannes Film Festival award for Best Actor), loss of people and relationships from long ago, difficulty of continuing to find artistic inspiration especially when you have a successful past to live up to, memories of significant events responsible for guiding us toward the person we’ve now become.  All of this is done in a manner moving easily from past to present as the many flashbacks (easily understood because of the significantly-different-ages of the main characters) continue to add additional depth to the saga of Salvador’s life, while the intimacy of these multiple-character-studies is enhanced with the frequent use of closeups and midshots as the color palette shifts from the marvelous range of saturated hues so often found in an Almodóvar film to more neutral tones in many of the flashback scenes, indicating the limited experiences of younger-age-Salvador, removed from the more intense episodes of his life still awaiting appearance.

 The only problem I have with Pain and Glory (which could easily be no concern for many viewers, likely not an aspect of this director’s intentions) is how much it reminds me of Federico Fellini’s 1963 masterpiece, (so named by Fellini because it’s his 8th and ½ feature, following 6 previous full-lengths, 3 shorter segments in other films each of which he counted as a half for his output up to that point [considering 2 of those early features were La Strada {1954} and La Dolce Vita {1960} he could easily have retired on his laurels after*winning Oscars for Best Foreign Language Film, Best Costume Design in Black & White {Piero Gherard}, often considered one of the best films ever—but, of course, he didn’t, going on to make other memorable classics, garnering other Oscar noms along the way]).  In the interview video as the second item connected to Pain ... in this posting’s Related Links section farther below, Almodóvar notes several influential films/directors from his early viewing years, but with no mention of either Fellini nor , so I have no idea if my soon-to-be-cited-overlaps have any intentionality on his part (as with Joker [Todd Phillips; review in our October 9, 2019 posting] where there are admitted nods to previous works like Taxi Driver [Martin Scorsese, 1976], The King of Comedy [Scorsese, 1983], A Clockwork Orange [Stanley Kubrick, 1971]or if they’re truly coincidental aspects of masterworks by masterful filmmakers.  Anyway, in both films we have a director character (Guido Anselmi [Marcello Mastroianni] in ) facing a creative crisis (although in Fellini’s film his fictional helmsman’s already in progress on a project the character can’t find a proper purpose for), both films feature autobiographical references to their actual directors (in Pedro’s case [again, you can get more details in that interview video below] he did grow up in a rural town, his mother wrote letters for illiterate neighbors, his parents sent him to a religious boarding school with hopes he’d be a priest [never his intention], he credits working in cinema as giving him a better education than anything he learned in school, his early collaborations with Banderas came to an end after Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! [1989], not to resume until 22 years later with The Skin I Live In—although he claims the heroin smoking and other aspects of Pain and Glory are purely fictional), both actively feature childhood remembrances (some of which are traumatic), both main characters had difficulties with important people in their past, are still trying to find ways to make amends or at least move on.  The resolutions of these fictional directors take different paths, but overall it’s difficult for me to not constantly sense the one while trying to just concentrate on the other.  At least they’re both well worth my (and your) rapt attention.

*You can watch it here (don't try to pump up the volume; this clip begins in silence) cheaply (or from other sources, I’m sure), but they do give you the opening 2:40, indicating its unique, surreal nature.

Bottom Line Final Comments: Other CCALers (usually not as insightful as me, but, admittedly, much better known in most cases as fate would have it) have also been quite enthralled with Pain and Glory (although seemingly not bothered at all by my “scandalous” report of the Fellini connection) as the folks at Rotten Tomatoes offered 96% positive reviews while the stingy reviewers at Metacritic produced an 88% average score, far and away one of the highest numbers from them for any 2019-released-films both they and I have reviewed (Long Day’s Journey into Night [Bi Gan; actually from 2018, long wait coming West] also got an MC 88% [ironically, I wasn’t so moved, giving only 3½ stars to this Chinese release in my review in our May 9, 2019 posting] which has no connection to Eugene O’Neill’s play [written 1941-’42, due to its O'Neill-family-based-content not published/performed until 1956, after his death]; The Souvenir [Joanna Hogg] got their highest so far this year of our mutual interests, 92%, with me again going in the other direction, drastically so at only 2½ stars [review in our June 12, 2019 posting]).  However, audiences are putting their money into other (mostly lesser) options at present with Disney’s Maleficent: Mistress of Evil (Joachim Ronning) dominating last weekend’s domestic (U.S.-Canada) market at $36.9 million (plus another $118.1 million from overseas, even as these totals were called “underachieving” compared to the reported $185 million production costs [plus probably another $100 million in marketing]) while Joker took in another $29.3 million ($741.3 million global total after 3 weeks), Zombieland 2: Double Tap (Ruben Fleischer) debuted with $26.8 million domestically (the cast of Woody Harrelson, Emma Stone, Jesse Eisenberg, Abigail Breslin helps), The Addams Family [2019] (Conrad Vernon, Greg Tiernan) continues to pile up some cash with another $16.3 domestic millions, even as Pain and Glory’s been out for 3 weeks but is playing in only 67 domestic theaters so there’s an explanation for its mere $1 million domestic gross thus far (plus another $29.8 million from international venues).

(Here’s me [as Alberto] hassling Almodóvar [as Salvador] about 
but he claimed to not know what the hell I was talking about.)
 Therefore, as much as I’d like for you to see Pain and Glory (despite any reservations I might have regarding [although if you haven’t seen that one either I even more highly encourage a video rental]), if for no other reason than as Oscar preparation because it’s Spain’s entry in the (seemingly renamed) Best International Feature Film category (I’ll be shocked if it’s not a finalist; Banderas may [should?] be among the Best Actor nominees as well), but you'll probably have to turn to some video option here as well, given the unlikely situation of a considerably-wider-release.  While you’re searching for this current Almodóvar gem, though, I’ll help out with a mini-soundtrack, my usual review-ending-tactic of a Musical Metaphor; this time, for Pain and Glory, the choice that came to me was Neil Young’s “Old Man” (from his 1972 Harvest album) at (from a 1971 BBC concert), as those many flashbacks encourage me to see very young Salva now talking directly to his elderly director self: “Doesn’t mean that much to me To mean that much to you I’ve been first and last Look at how the time goes past But I’m all alone at last Rolling home to you Old man, take a look at my life I’m a lot like you I need someone to love me the whole day through.”  But, while you’re singing and (hopefully) searching around for access to Pain and Glory (an extremely-straightforward title for what occurs in this film), let me give you one last comment about Pedro and his brother Agustín Almodóvar (who handles the finances for their El Deseo production company) because it’s connected to my previous review (October 16, 2019) of The Laundromat (Steven Soderbergh) as those Panama Papers controversial revelations showed our noted Spanish siblings as part of the incorporation of a company in the British Virgin Islands (1991-’94), which revealed no evidence of tax evasion on their part but seemed to have a box-office-impact on Julieta; nevertheless, it won the U.S. National Board of Review’s award for Best Foreign Language Film, was nominated for many others despite its negative associations, so sometimes art and commerce can maintain separate realms even when circumstances conspire to push them closer together.  I do hope, though, that no such extra-textual (how’s that for a snooty film studies word?) distractions dissuade you from seeking out Pain and Glory; it’s a beautiful experience, well worth your time and effort to locate and view (although I still recommend putting it on your video queue before , just to allow this current exploration of related themes to have its time in the sun before it has to contend in any manner with a time-honored-cinematic-masterpiece).
Related Links Which You Might Find Interesting:
We encourage you to visit the summary of Two Guys reviews for our past posts.*  Overall notations for this blog—including Internet formatting craziness beyond our control—may be found at our Two Guys in the Dark homepage If you’d like to Like us on Facebook please visit our Facebook page. We appreciate your support whenever and however you can offer it!

*A Google software glitch causes every Two Guys posting prior to August 26, 2016 to have an inaccurate (dead) link to this Summary page; from then forward, though, this link is accurate.

Here’s more information about Pain and Glory:

with director Pedro Almodóvar and actor Antonio Banderas)

Please note that to Post a Comment below about our reviews you need to have either a Google account (which you can easily get at if you need to sign up) or other sign-in identification from the pull-down menu below before you preview or post.  You can also leave comments at our Facebook page, although you may have to somehow connect with us at that site in order to do it (most FB procedures are still a bit of a mystery to us old farts).

If you’d rather contact Ken directly rather than leaving a comment here please use my email address of if you truly have too much time on your hands you might want to explore some even-longer-and-more-obtuse-than-my-film-reviews—if that even seems possible—academic articles about various cinematic topics at my website,, which could really give you something to talk to me about.)

If we did talk, though, you’d easily see how my early-70s-age informs my references, Musical Metaphors, etc. in these reviews because I’m clearly a guy of the later 20th century, not so much the contemporary world.  I’ve come to accept my ongoing situation, though, realizing we all (if fate allows) keep getting older, we just have to embrace it, as Joni Mitchell did so well in "The Circle Game," offering sage advice even when she was quite young herself.

By the way, if you’re ever at The Hotel California knock on my door—but you know what the check out policy is so be prepared to stay for awhile. Ken

P.S.  Just to show that I haven’t fully flushed Texas out of my system here’s an alternative destination for you, Home in a Texas Bar, with Gary P. Nunn and Jerry Jeff Walker.  But wherever the rest of my body may be my heart’s always with my longtime-companion, lover, and wife, Nina Kindblad, so here’s our favorite shared song—Neil Young’s "Harvest Moon"
—from the performance we saw at the Desert Trip concerts in Indio, CA on October 15, 2016 (as a full moon was rising over the stadium) because “I’m still in love with you,” my dearest, a never-changing-reality even as the moon waxes and wanes over the months/years to come.
Finally, for the data-oriented among you, Google stats say over the past month (which they seem to measure from right now back 30 days) the total unique hits at this site were 30,466 (as always, we thank all of you for your support with our hopes you’ll continue to be regular readers); below is a snapshot of where and by what means those responses have come from within the previous week (including all faithful Unknown Regionnaires, consistently among our most loyal, wherever you are):

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