Ten minutes into Pedro Almodóvar’s 21st feature film, director Salvador Mallo (Antonio Banderas) declares “I lived the first 30 years with relative unconsciousness, but soon I discovered my head and what was inside it.” The statement reflects the focus of Pain and Glory generally, Banderas’ protagonist being in many ways a surrogate Almodóvar, complete with wispy, greying hair and matching beard. Salvador is at the center of a film unapologetically about films, where the subject is equal parts passion and profession, addiction and therapy. His “discovery” offers the key to an understanding of his character but also the film Almodóvar places him in.
Narratively, the epiphany comes as Salvador (during childhood, “Saviour”) synthesizes the individual academic strands of his education, identifying their mutual service of a filmmaking career path. Almodóvar destabilizes his realist framework, supplying on-screen abstractions that map out both the content of the study and how it later became important—“GEOGRAFIA” and the necessity of traveling the world to promote his work, “ANATOMIA” and Salvador’s ability to look inward, and so forth. The scene informs what appears to be the film’s objective as a whole: investigating Salvador’s creative evolution as a means to show how this cycle is always open, and always liberating.
Almodóvar must stage the restriction before illuminating the liberation. He traps Salvador behind a distinct three-act structure corresponding to conversations with three important figures in his life: Alberto (his actor/ex-collaborator), Federico (his ex-lover) and Jacinta (his mother). Almodóvar limits the drama to two timelines, and introduces three vital intertexts whose development shape the narrative: “Sabor,” “La Adicción,” and “El Primer Deseo.” The first is Salvador’s success with Alberto, with whom he must then reunite as the film celebrates its 30th anniversary, prompting an elaborate comedic episode in which the pair get too high to attend their own Q&A screening and instead supply answers over the phone; the second is Salvador’s work-in-progress, contradicting his retirement claims, which Alberto learns of and persuades his involvement in; the third is the symbol of creative clarity when the film’s two timelines converge and Salvador realizes what he must write next: an autobiographical account of his first homosexual desire for Eduardo, the local laborer that his mother (Penélope Cruz) invites to help fix up their cave home in exchange for her precocious son’s tutelage.
The closing shot reveals how these flashbacks were, in fact, scenes from the film Salvador will go on to make, forming the kind of explicit twist we rarely see in an Almodóvar film. The fiction-reality blur is almost everywhere in his filmography—Manuela and Esteban watching All About Eve together before the opening credits for All About My Mother, or the metafiction of Bad Education, which is framed by the reading of “The Visit,” an in-film manuscript that the narrator imagines (and Almodóvar dramatizes) for most of the film’s runtime—but Pain and Glory is a film that relies on it as revelation. Here, the ostensible reality becoming fiction is an unforeseen moment, the realization of a film-within-the-film clicking everything into place.
That is, creative consciousness and self-reflexivity are the driving forces behind Pain and Glory, on levels structural and thematic. As a narrative, it clicks into place as such, but only after the idea is presented as a specifically characterological obsession—Salvador’s. At one point, he claims that “writing is like drawing but with letters,” at another that he “cannot live without acting,” and as later ventriloquized by Alberto performing “La Adicción,” that “the cinema saved me.” A sense of creative duty pervades Salvador’s thoughts throughout the film; his resulting artistic works help to define him. His fiction informs the realist narrative, which we realize once we reach the ending, but also the case when Pain and Glory is voluntarily fractured by filmic technique.
There is another surrealist episode of Alberto first envisaging “La Adicción,” acting it out to an empty auditorium, complete with a blank projection screen to point to as he talks about exactly howcinema “saved” him. Salvador brings him crashing down to reality with the initial rejection, “You are on the opposite side of that text.” But ultimately, he does let him on the other side of it, allowing Alberto to merge with his character and become him, just as Salvador himself ruptures these stable “sides” by persistently fluctuating between fiction and reality himself. Almodóvar invites us to join the timeline in which his protagonist overcomes writer’s block and thinks up “El Primer Deseo,” however we spend as much time in the one where we can experience that fiction itself, disguised as a series of flashbacks.
It is within these flashbacks that the most significantly epiphanic moment of Salvador’s personal life can be found. Realizing what his next project must be comes after recognizing the importance of a memory, one of witnessing Eduardo change clothes and wash at the cave when his mother is away. The camera aligns with Saviour’s sight of Eduardo’s naked body through his bedroom doorway, a cinematic voyeurism that feels generous rather than intrusive, as well as vital to our process of understanding the central character. Eduardo calls him out to the main room and Saviour faints, dropping a towel and falling to the ground emphatically. The moment is arguably the narrative turning point of Pain and Glory, when Salvador connects the pivotal memory of realizing his sexual orientation to his epiphany of channeling it creatively as an adult. Creative and personal self-discovery are inextricable, which Almodóvar communicates with nonlinearity. Pain and Glory is a mosaic, a canvas splashed with different episodes, leaving the viewer to identify shapes and connect the dots. The scene with Eduardo links his character to Federico, the ex who turns up on Salvador’s doorstep wishing to rekindle their friendship, who he confesses “filled my life like nothing or nobody has done so far.” By extension this joins the timelines, accentuating how homosexual desire has underpinned Salvador’s entire life, the only force equal to his burning passion for creativity.
Salvador’s ex-lover Federico turns up after seeing Alberto act in an early performance of “La Adicción,” his interpretation of the thinly veiled autobiography giving him a reason to see Salvador again after all these years. The third party in their conversation, as is often the case in the film, is Salvador’s fiction—Federico suggesting “as you say in your monologue,” treating the work as an extension of the man who wrote it. It foretells Salvador’s own realization that this is precisely how he will keep on going as a writer and filmmaker. He overcomes writer’s block by giving in entirely to self-reflexivity, to writing unequivocally about his own life. Hence “El Primer Deseo,” which as we see in the flashbacks is exclusively Salvador’sexperience; his relationships (with his mother, with Eduardo) are always the by-product of self-centering. The catharsis in the present may not be as perfect as renewing a romantic relationship with Federico, who now has two children and a wife (“my experience with men ended with you”), so it must instead be the decision that his sexuality will be the subject of his next project. Federico helps Salvador understand this, and then Almodóvar shows it in the crucial flashback that will, of course, prompt Salvador to write “El Primer Deseo” because it is it, as we realize when he calls cut in Pain and Glory’s final shot.
But we only reach this after being briefly introduced to a third timeline. In this, Salvador sees his dying mother for the last time, an experience which the silver-haired Banderas in the present repeatedly claims he never recovered from. The mother-son relationship is an Almodóvar staple: see All About My Mother; or Volver, where Raimunda’s mother literally comes back from the dead to tie up loose ends; or Live Flesh, whose Isabel gives birth to son Victor on a bus before the opening credits. In Pain and Glory, the significance of the relationship is mentioned on more than one occasion, but only clarified when we hear Salvador’s final words to her. We only spend one scene in this new timeline: Jacinta (now played by Julieta Serrano) is visited by her son and discusses how she wishes to be presented at her funeral, specifically the type of shroud she would like. The pair then debate their relationship over the years, Salvador confessing “I’m sorry I was never the son you wanted,” Jacinta responding “don’t put on that narrator’s face…I do not like self-fiction.”
She pleads with her son to take her to the country, desperate to not spend her last days in a hospital bed, to which Salvador gives her a promise that is never fulfilled. This guilt hangs over the film like a dark cloud, just as her warning of turning everything into “self-fiction” does. This impulse is Salvador’s passion but also curse, the reason he made “Sabor” 30 years ago, writes “La Adicción” now, and will move onto “El Primer Deseo” next.
It is the only thing Banderas’ character knows, ever since he discovered his head and “what was inside it” all those years ago. To be conscious is to be creative; Pain and Glory’s aesthetic is predicated on this. Almodóvar emphasizes artifice rather than concealing it, hence an overtly bright color palette of deep oranges, reds, and yellows, and a stylized musical score built on strings and orchestra. The anti-realist approach is only heightened in the flashbacks, where design determines the drama—the dreamlike scene of Jacinta washing clothes in a stream, singing with her friends as the Saviour climbs on her back; or the moment when he sings in school, note-perfect, to the amazement of his teacher and peers, the hero saving the class.
Pain and Glory comes alive (and thrives) in scenes where the fantasy shouts that it is fiction, from the moment Salvador raises his head above the swimming pool water and lets out a long breath in its opening seconds. Almodóvar plays with form because his film is a meditation on it, exploring the creative process, inspiration, artistic profession—filmmaking as an entire raison d’être. At one point, Salvador speaks of the loneliness that comes with this singular worldview, suggesting that his paintings are his only company. But the film constantly invites us to transgress the fictional boundary, and so Salvador is never completely alone. There is always somebody watching him on a screen. We may only ever be on the opposite side of Almodóvar’s text, but that text can only play out by actively implicating and involving its spectator. Occupying this space, we feel needed but also welcome. Pain and Glory is essential as a love-letter to its own world and to ours. It’s an antidote to narcissism, that natural but limiting creative impulse, and a testament to why we line up at the cinema and take a seat in the first place.