"Pain and Glory" (2019)- Movie Review

Written and Directed by Pedro Almodóvar
Starring Antonio Banderas, Penélope Cruz and Asier Etxeandia

‘A Powerful Autobiographical Memoir’

Few filmmakers from Spain have achieved the international recognition of Pedro Almodóvar. Ever since he gained worldwide attention with “All About My Mother” in 1999, Almodóvar has proven to be a fantastic Spanish filmmaker. You immediately know what to expect when you’re watching an Almodóvar production: vibrant colors, glossy decor and eccentric characters. However, Almodóvar has never shared his personal story onscreen. With themes of grief, loss and self-reflection, his life story isn’t exactly tailored towards mainstream audiences. After all, it is not easy for artists to expose their private lives on film. It’s no surprise, then, that Almodóvar’s life has never been depicted on the big-screen.
Now, Almodóvar recounts his personal experiences on the big-screen for the first time in his latest film “Pain and Glory”. A bold, introspective, and moving autobiographical drama, it offers a fascinating look at the life of an aging filmmaker. With his twenty-first feature, Almodóvar has drawn on his own life experiences to craft a portrait of an ailing artist. Packed with spellbinding cinematography, exquisite production values and powerful performances, it is a highly effective autobiographical drama. Although “Pain and Glory” is undeniably unforgettable, ultimately it is not a flawless film. It suffers from a slow pace that tests the viewer’s patience. Nonetheless, it offers heartwarming entertainment that will satisfy fans of Spanish Cinema.

Set in modern-day Spain, “Pain and Glory” tells the story of an aging filmmaker that has lost his creative spark. Antonio Banderas stars in the lead role as Salvador Mallo, a depressed director in the midst of a mid-life crisis. Salvador yearns to make movies but suffers from mental and physical illnesses that have slowed down his career. However, Salvador’s life forever changes when he reconnects with an old ex-lover from his past. As Salvador gains newfound inspiration, he becomes desperate to reclaim his past creative glory.

Writer/director Pedro Almodóvar has long been fascinated with the creative process. His films often focus on the lives of obsessive artists in the pursuit of success. “Pain and Glory”, however, marks his first autobiographical drama and foray into his own personal memories. It’s the filmmaker’s first attempt to create a self-portrait of his life on the big-screen, but he pulls it off seamlessly. Using captivating cinematography, Almodóvar draws viewers into the life of an afflicted artist that is haunted by his past. From intimate close-ups to gorgeous establishing shots, the cinematography keeps viewers immersed in the film’s setting. Working alongside cinematographer José Luis Alcaine, Almodóvar creates a stunning film in which each frame is like a beautiful painting brought to life. Almodóvar excels at immersing viewers into the world of a grieving genius, and his latest feature is worth watching for this reason alone.

If stories of struggling artists do not attract your attention, though, there are still plenty of other reasons to see “Pain and Glory”. The film is extremely well-made, and features the most breathtaking production values that you’ll ever see in a foreign-language film. The production sets, color palette and musical score are all carefully chosen, combining to create an immersive cinematic experience. Colors have always been a crucial component of Almodóvar’s films, and “Pain and Glory” is no exception. Almodóvar masterfully employs colors to convey the characters’ emotional states. For instance, bright colors (ex. red) immerse viewers into Salvador’s cheerful memories of his childhood. In stark contrast, darker hues (ex. grey) serve to emphasize his present-day depression. Moreover, the musical score is also worth mentioning. Alberto Iglesias’ score is highly effective. It evokes a sense of heartache and nostalgia. Through impeccable production values, Almodóvar keeps viewers engrossed in an artistic world.

Another laudable aspect of “Pain and Glory” is the screenplay. Filled with compelling characters, profound themes and innovative storytelling, the script elevates the movie to another level. Almodóvar’s greatest strength as a screenwriter is his ability to subvert the expectations of viewers by telling his story in a non-linear fashion. In Hollywood, most movies follow a formulaic structure with a clear beginning, middle and end. This often leaves no room for surprises and detracts from the quality of the movie-going experience. Thankfully, though, that is definitely not the case with “Pain and Glory”. The film deftly switches back and forth between two timelines: Salvador’s present-day life and memory-like flashbacks of his childhood. Using this non-linear structure, Almodóvar crafts a film that is utterly unpredictable. Non-linear storytelling is a risky technique to employ in a foreign film, but it works immensely in this movie. Using an unconventional screenplay, Almodóvar keeps viewers invested in the life of a filmmaker.

It is hard to not praise the phenomenal performances from the cast. In an award-worthy Spanish ensemble, every star gets the chance to shine and leave a lasting impression.

Antonio Banderas delivers his finest performance to date as Salvador Mallo. This is the actor unlike you’ve ever seen him before: intense, understated and vulnerable in his most demanding role to date. It is not easy to get into the mindset of a tormented filmmaker that is caught in a creative crisis. It’s a challenging role that requires the actor to draw from his own personal experiences as an artist. However, Banderas pulls it off effortlessly. With mesmerizing expressions, he conveys the anguish, longing and reflective nostalgia of an ailing artist that yearns to recapture his past glory. It’s a career-best performance from one of the finest Spanish actors working today.

The supporting cast is spectacular and also worthy of recognition. Penélope Cruz is fantastic and commands every flashback she is in as Salvador’s domineering mother Jacinta. Leonardo Sbaraglia is sensational and imbues shades of humanity into Salvador’s ex-lover Frederico. And finally, it is hard to not mention Asier Etxeandia. As a drug-addicted actor, he brings hilarious comical relief to movie.

Although “Pain and Glory” is undeniably an extraordinary autobiographical drama, ultimately it is not a flawless film. If there’s a minor drawback to the movie, it suffers from a slow pace that lacks narrative momentum. Assisted by Alberto Iglesias’ heartfelt score, Almodóvar keeps the film moving at an engaging pace during the first hour. However, once the film enters its sentimental finale, it starts to lose steam and test the viewer’s patience. Almodóvar’s decision to split the film’s narrative into two timelines is bold and innovative, but it doesn’t entirely work. It hinders the pacing and detracts from the entertainment-value of the movie. Due to this faulty technique, there are times when the childhood flashbacks are less engaging than the present-day sequences. In light of its leisurely pace, “Pain and Glory” is one of those films that may not appeal towards mainstream audiences.

Nevertheless, fans of Pedro Almodóvar will definitely enjoy “Pain and Glory” and so will movie-goers seeking art-house entertainment. A sublime piece of filmmaking, it proves that film is a medium that can be used to tell personal stories. At a time when the lives of renowned directors are rarely depicted in films, it’s a glorious reminder of the power of Cinema as an autobiographical art-form.

4/5 stars

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