We spend most of our life forgetting. We forget the countless minutes and hours that sandwich those few occasions of great importance. Out of those bits of time that are deemed memorable, a whole narrative of life is constructed. All the rest discarded as unimportant. That exhilarating summer afternoon, that moody day spent surfing YouTube, all is reduced to the same monotone muffling. It is a time that we know existed but can no longer prove. Left with only remnants, we can only stitch together a partial picture of what our lives were. Making such a fractured image cohesive is the particular talent of the filmmaker. In two hours or less, they must assemble enough of these pieces to create a character whose life can move believably. Intuitively knowing which piece is most important, knowing which space can be left intriguingly open is why some people are directors and I am relegated to mere critic. I have learned to appreciate the picture all the more, though, especially when it is as beautifully constructed as in Pain and Glory (Dolor y Gloria is the original title). In his latest film, Pedro Almodóvar assembles critical moments from both his character’s and his own life to create one vivid whole.
That feeling of artistic fulfillment has been missing from Salvador Mallo’s life for many years now. Mallo (Antonio Banderas) was formerly a critically successful film director. But time has left him with raging migraines, excruciating back pains, and a throat that will close up without warning. At least he still has a glorious shock of grey hair. Each encounter with bodily agony leaves Mallo bent over, literally breathless. Even in the moments where he is temporarily free, pain casts its dusky shadow over his life. It makes all of his movements careful and slow. Getting into a cab is a cautious unwinding of the body, each breath devoted to avoiding further aggravation. Natural movement is repressed out of fear. This physical repression has led to an artistic bridling as well. He cannot direct while being unable to move with his films. It is not only Mallo that instinctively relates his art to his physical state. Art has always been a bodily act as much as a mental one. Physical suffering from art. Michelangelo was afflicted by severe backaches after standing for hours painting the Sistine Chapel. Art from suffering. Frida Kahlo painted herself laying in a hospital hemorrhaging blood. The title of the film, then, refers to both of the binary aspects of art. We create glorious beauty even in the moments of greatest agony.
Almodóvar, thus, chooses to depict Mallo’s pain unconventionally. Instead of painful, tearing strokes, we see Mallo’s pain in a colorful swirl of animated color. The rest of the film is similarly bright even as it depicts the various indignities of aging. Almodóvar never lets his film get bogged down by the seeming darkness of the present, allowing for a constant light to shine through, especially when Mallo reflects upon his childhood. Loved and guarded by his mother (a brilliant Penelope Cruz), young Salvador discovers much of the inspiration that will fuel his artistic endeavors in the future. The problem becomes combining that young, beautiful idealism with the harsher realities of getting older. It is like drawing a cohesive picture using both crayons and oil paints. This is the problem that Mallo must truly confront, not simply pain, but the fracturing of self that the pain causes. His suffering proves that he is no longer that invincible young man. So, who is he now? Perhaps this film is Almodóvar’s answer to this question. He says it quite beautifully.