Body and Soul
In a deep depression following the death of his mother and suffering from multiple physical ailments, an aging director turns to heroin and a dose of self-pity. This set-up for Pedro Almodóvar’s latest film could result in a traditional addiction-story arc: long, tortured recovery, or slow decline and death. Fortunately it does not. Instead, Almodóvar joins the ranks of artists who have reflected on their careers, their families and lovers, their highs and lows, and the ravages of time on their bodies and creative processes: pain and glory, or, better put, glory and pain.
Unlike Almodóvar’s previous films, “Pain and Glory” is not filled with erratic women (“Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown” 1988) or prostitutes and transvestites (“All About My Mother” 1999). The world Salvador (compellingly portrayed by Antonio Banderas as Almodóvar’s double) inhabits here is very male, even gay male. The character, whose name means “Savior,” loved movies and tried to save figuratively, as he puts it, Natalie (Wood) and Marilyn (Monroe) and literally, his first true love of years ago, the heroin-addicted Federico (Leonardo Sbaraglia).
Now, as the film opens, it is Salvador who needs saving. Four men participate in his rescue: a volatile actor with whom he reconciles (Asier Etxeandia as Alberto Crespo); a mature Federico; his first (male) desire, fondly recalled; and a (male) surgeon.
Reflections on one’s life are inherently narcissistic and, when fueled by heroin, as at least some of these are, less than trustworthy. Nine-year-old Salvador (Asier Flores) appears as the perfect child: adorable and precocious, a self-taught lad who reads voraciously and then teaches an illiterate young worker and amateur artist—that first object of his desire--to read and write. In a long and cloying dream-like recollection, the young Salvador smiles beatifically as contented village women (including the much-too-lovely and recognizable Penelope Cruz as his mother) wash clothes in the river and dry them on bushes while singing folk songs. Although Salvador objects to having to attend seminary school, he isn’t much damaged by the experience—becoming, well, a famous film director. So important are these childhood experiences to the older, now infirm Salvador, that he fondly cradles a newly-discovered drawing of his 9-year-old self, reading, done by that youthful painter with the sculpted body.
Cognizant that audiences might be bored by the medical details, the savvy Almodóvar uses graphics and computer imagery to flash through his international career and bodily afflictions. Even so, the medical issues can take over, as they do when he and his assistant spend a few too many sessions with doctors. Other directors, equally well known, have made the same mistake. A third of Nanni Moretti’s 1993 “Caro Diario” deals solely with his maladies; it’s the least successful segment of an otherwise engaging film.
The plot resolutions of “Pain and Glory” are somewhat facile. Salvador easily kicks his heroin habit with medication and “an iron will.” And the script suggests that his debilitating back pain and difficulty swallowing will both be cured with one simple and safe operation. Cue the operating room. These shorthand references keep the film from insufferable digressions into recovery from addiction and surgery, while at the same time seeming improbable.
More troubling and disturbing, both for the protagonist and filmgoers, is Salvador’s relationship with his aged mother (Julieta Serrano, a veteran of “Women on the Verge…” who looks nothing like Cruz). Though near death, she makes it clear to her son that she has never appreciated his life’s work. She’s hard on and unforgiving of Salvador, even when he’s at his most contrite: “I was never the son you wanted me to be,” he says to her, “You were never proud of me”—assertions she neither refutes nor contests.
Despite its heavy themes, Almodóvar lightens the narrative with sympathetic, even normal characters, including his doppelgänger Salvador, who comes across as thoughtful, engaging, and able to carry on responsible human relationships as he seeks to reconcile with those in his past, including his long-suffering mother. If the film avoids confronting addiction in any credible way, it succeeds in presenting its subject as authentic and grounded; the sets were created from Almodóvar’s own furniture and paintings, and Banderas is dressed in Almodóvar’s clothes, including some rather unappealing shirts out of the 1980s.
“Pain and Glory” is a deeply personal, autobiographical reflection on a long and illustrious career and late-life crises. Its mostly straightforward narrative is enhanced by the accomplished director’s use of a variety of filmic devices, including flashbacks, computer graphics, film-within-a-film, and a movie-screen-within-a-play-within-a-film. These techniques bring layers of time and depth of feeling to the reminiscences of an older man. And yet, one could wish for a less traditional film, for more of the bold experimentation that launched the career of the younger Almodóvar.
Director: Pedro Almodóvar
Starring: Antonio Banderas, Penelope Cruz, Asier Flores, Leonardo Sbaraglia, Asier Etxeandia, Julieta Serrano, César Vicente, Nora Navas
Language: Spanish; Subtitled in English
Runtime: 113 minutes