In Pedro Almodóvar’s latest movie, Pain and Glory, memories rise and fall throughout the film, first slowly and seamlessly, later becoming so intense that they blur with the present, sometimes even manifesting in film director Salvador Mallo’s (Antonio Banderas) current life in curious ways. A film about film might seem like self-indulgent awards fodder, and it’s been done countless times before (the most recent example being this summer’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, directed by Quentin Tarantino). But Pain and Glory is deeply intimate and self-aware as it focuses on one man’s life from rural Spain to his current life as a well-off, successful filmmaker, and the relationship he holds with the cinema.
It’s clear from the onset that Salvador is plagued with a lot of problems, mostly because there’s a good 2.5 minute segment with computer-generated diagrams that explains exactly what seriously ails him, from his depression to the various bodily pains that give him difficulty in his day-to-day life. While a scientific introduction like this might veer on the edge of gracelessness, it’s actually quite effective, setting the terms for our protagonist plainly. We know that Salvador is struggling. But simply knowing someone’s medical record doesn’t exactly create an audience-to-screen connection.
That’s where the flashbacks come in. Bits and pieces of Salvador’s memories are spliced through his present day life, tied by a loose pattern. Each surfacing memory is later resurfaced through physical manifestations in the film’s fictive present: An old lover comes to visit; a long-lost portrait comes into view; Salvador’s mother Jacinta (Penelope Cruz) — who occupies the majority of Salvador’s flashbacks — is thought of posthumously with layered filial guilt. There’s nothing quite like nostalgia — it carries a universal power through individual experiences.
That’s part of the appeal of what Salvador calls autofiction, and part of the danger too. When Salvador talks to his mother about his childhood and its influence on his autobiographical, fictional films, they start to disagree about movie representations of rural Spain, where Salvador grew up, and where his mother lived through the rest of her life. “My neighbors don’t like you showing them,” Jacinta says. “They think you show them like rednecks.”
“The things you say. I couldn’t treat them with more respect or devotion,” Salvador responds, surprised. “Whenever I can, I talk about you and I say that you and the neighbors made me what I am. I owe everything to you.” It’s clear that everyone’s pasts and presents will be remembered differently, especially when class mobility complicates the relationship, something that Pain and Glory very subtly builds.
But that’s part of the necessary clauses of nostalgia — that every remembered experience will somehow feel so unique and special to the individual’s imagination. For Salvador, those lived experiences come through the cinema and his work in film, a relationship that’s so sweetly remembered and shown as Salvador clings onto the memories of his childhood theaters, where a small crowd would gather in front of a whitewashed wall in the summer. “In the cinema of my childhood,” Salvador recounts, “it always smells of piss, and of jasmine, and of the summer breeze.”
Not all things last — that’s the bitter part about nostalgia, the thing that makes people hold onto it so tightly. Pain and Glory seems to understand that as the whole film is haunted by death, the possibility of it, and the question of legacy. You might argue that the plot is structured around Salvador’s health problems, as they slowly careen to a reckoning. But fixating on a fear of ends isn’t what Pain and Glory wants. As Jacinta talks about how she wants to be buried in what are presumably the last weeks of her life, it’s clear that the film’s approach to memory and to loss are rather similar: “If they tie my feet to bury me, you untie them and say I asked you to,” she says to Salvador. “The place where I’m going, I want to go in very lightly.”
Opens Oct. 11 in Landmark’s Embarcadero Center Cinema.