‘Pain and Glory’: What makes us who we are?

This week sees Pedro Almodóvar’s latest feature Pain and Glory roll into the cinema here at Storyhouse. One of our Young Content Creators, Jon, reflects on the deeper questions posed by this film. Tickets for Pain and Glory are available to book now.


‘Pain and Glory’: What makes us who we are? 

By Jon Paul Roberts

In Pain and Glory, Pedro Almodóvar’s latest feature, there is a moment during a flashback scene that I distinctly recognised. A young boy sees a grown man naked for the first time. Eduardo (César Vincente) is a truly beautiful man, with delicate features and deep brown eyes, who has been helping the family fix up their new home and in return the ten-year-old Salvador (Asier Flores) teaches him to read and write. After finishing tiling the wall, Eduardo asks if he can bathe before he returns home. He cleans the paint and grout off his skin and washes his body using a small metal basin in the kitchen. The washing itself isn’t performative and it isn’t sexualised. There are no significant close-ups on any part of his body, but rather its presented in full, the entire image boldly taking up the screen. The moment comes when Salvador brings Eduardo a towel and his mouth drops open with awe, desire, and curiosity at the naked man in front of him.

This is a moment a queer audience will recognise. I’ve had queer friends tell me about the moment in which they discovered form of their desired sex, whether that be through film, art, pornography, or underwear packaging adorned with bulging crotches and rippling abdominals. It’s a formative experience, a moment of self-discovery, because most queer people don’t learn their desire in the same way as their straight peers. Queer desire exists in the corners, hidden in places that aren’t easy to find and so every queer kid finds their own their own source of education. They have a lot of questions, but where do they find the answers?

I remember my first time seeing a man naked, washing himself in the communal showers at the swimming baths. It was a moment that, at the time, felt wrong somehow. As if the desire I felt, the attraction to his body (which wasn’t sexual, but felt more like being an interested observer) was incorrect. Indeed, the young Salvador faints when he sees the naked Eduardo, going light headed and dizzy from sunstroke and this felt like a perfect representation of that early queer experience.

Pain and Glory explores a lot of these formative experiences and relationships through Salvador Mallo (Antonio Banderas), who acts as a stand in for Almodóvar himself. We see his childhood growing up in the village of Paterna, his relationship with his mother (played by both Penelope Cruz and Julieta Serrano), his first true love in Madrid, and his first desire (the aforementioned Eduardo). We see Salvador isolate himself and shut down. We see him refuse to work, to engage, to live and it’s clear that Pain and Glory is Almodóvar’s most personal work. It is his cinematic memoir.

In one scene, Salvador sits with his elderly mother. She talks to him about the plans she has made for herself after she dies: how she wants to be presented, what she wants to wear, and where she wants to die. She explicitly states that if the undertakers tie her feet together, as they have been known to do, he must cut them free before she is buried. The scene is pulled directly from Almodóvar’s own life who, in a recent profile in The Observer, described the same story.

In cinema, this isn’t new territory. In fact, for as long as film has existed directors have been adapting their own lives and experiences for the screen. In 1921 Charlie Chaplin made The Kid, a film that drew heavily on Chaplin’s own impoverished upbringing. Then, in 1993, Jean Vigo presented his days at boarding school in Zéro de conduite. A few years later, in 1959, François Truffaut released The 400 Blows, a recreation of his early life growing up in France. These early influential films lead to dozens that followed in their footsteps.

The idea of a filmic memoir has become ripe for filmmakers, who continue to blur the lines between fact and fiction. From those early days filmmakers, like Federico Fellini whose meta masterpiece (1963) dealt with the making of the film itself, began to define this new budding genre. Since then directors like Bob Fosse, Bill Douglas, Chantal Ackerman, Woody Allen, Terence Davies, Spike Lee, Nicole Holofcener, Sally Potter, Cheryl Dunye, Tamera Jenkins, Noah Baumbach, Sofia Coppola, Agnes Varda, Xavier Dolan, Ira Sachs, Richard Linklater, Mike Mills, Jennifer Fox, Lulu Wang, and even Shia LaBeouf have found their lives a source of rich inspiration for their films.

Recently, Alfonso Cuarón treaded similar ground to Almodóvar in the Oscar winning Roma (2018), which was a lavish black and white memoir about his childhood in Mexico City. While Roma’s subject matter and approach differs from Pain and Glory, they are both deeply personal retrospectives that are considered and tender.

Pain and Glory completes what could be seen as an semi-autobiographical trilogy for Almodóvar that began with Law of Desire in 1987 and continued with Bad Education in 2004. The three films follow directors who, for various reasons, are forced to relive their past and confront their present. All three films have some cross over points too, most noticeably in Bad Education and Pain and Glory, which both heavily reference Almodóvar’s time in a seminary school for boys. While Law of Desire and Bad Education contain heavily fictionalised aspects, such as violence and murder, Pain and Glory seems incredibly close to the director himself as he abandons the melodrama and focuses on truth.

The film follows Salvador Mallo who says, due to certain physical ailments, he can’t make films anymore. His back is hurting, he’s prone to random choking fits, and he always has headaches. However, Salvador’s emotional pain is equally as heavy as he deals with loss, heartbreak, fear, addiction, stress, and anxiety to name a few. In response, he’s cut himself off from most things – he doesn’t attend the theatre because the seats are too uncomfortable, he rarely calls his friends back, and declines all the invitations he is sent. He lives alone with his pain and with his memories.

When one of his films, Sabor, is remastered and expecting a re-release he gets in touch with its star, Alberto Crespo (Asier Etxeandia), in the hopes they can present the re-release together at a screening. Alberto, a Rockstar looking actor with a penchant for heroin, hasn’t spoken to Salvador in eighteen years after they fell out on the set of Sabor. Their reunion is awkward, at first, but soon their back into old habits and some new ones as Salvador tries, and becomes addicted to, heroin for the first time.

During one of these heroin trips, Alberto finds a piece of writing on Salvador’s computer which after some resistance, Salvador agrees to let him perform in a theatre. The ‘confessional’ monologue he has written about his ex-boyfriend, Federico (Leonardo Sbaraglia) details their relationship and Federico’s own heroin addiction: ‘Sometimes love is not enough to save the one you love’. The performance, however, leads to a tender reunion between the two former lovers and Salvador finds himself, in reaction to the shifts in his life, thinking about his past, his mother and his youth. He finds himself assessing his future, if he has one, as he spends time in doctors’ offices, MRI machines, and even undergoes surgery. His mortality is ever more in question, as is legacy. But Mallo is somewhat apathetic, like he has the answers or thinks he does, but now he is stuck. What do they all mean?

Pain and Glory has so much depth and richness that it’s impossible to grasp everything on the first watch but that is a good thing. It is a film that will benefit from a second, third, and fourth viewing as each new titbit, crumb, and facet reveals itself. It’s in this complexity that Pain and Glory succeeds. You feel as though you’ve witnessed a whole life, the full innerworkings of a person, as Almodóvar gives you all the tools you need to build it. There are deeply tender moments between friends, lovers, and family. There’s humour, pathos, and sadness. It feels whole. It feels true. It lives up to it’s title. The pain is deep and burdensome, both physical and emotional. Its glory is elusive and something of the past. It is the director, in his prime, exploring what makes a man who he is. Is it his mother, his losses, his desires, his queerness, his body, his mind, his work, his history, or all of the above? Is it possible for him to find his way back as his body betrays him? He does not know.

The film also features lot of Almodóvar’s ensemble of regular players, people who have surrounded him and known him. It marks Antonio Bandera’s eighth collaboration with the filmmaker, Julieta Serrano’s seventh, and Penélope Cruz’s sixth. It has always been Cruz’s collaborations with the Almodóvar that have interested me most, with Volver (2006) being a particular highlight. I can’t be the only one either, as her role in Volver made her the first Spanish woman in history to be nominated for Best Actress in a Leading Role at the Oscars. In fact, Cruz and Almodóvar seem meant for each other, cinematically speaking, and Pain and Glory is no exception. Her performance is layered and emotionally wrought as a mother struggling to provide a life for her son and save him from the same dead-end fate his father suffered. So it’s easy to see why actors continue to work with Almodóvar, as the roles in Pain and Glory, and in his other films, are as riveting and human as you can get.

It features some more of Almodóvar’s other cinematic staples too, such as: complex queer men, tender and strong women, physically beautiful men, bright luscious colours, and it is set within his native Spain. The latter being something Almodóvar has never strayed from, despite offers to direct English-language films such as Brokeback Mountain and even Sister Act.  However, the lure of such things isn’t what he’s interested in. Even when he’s funding his own films, he restricts his own budget to 10-million euros per-film and not necessarily for financial reasons but for artistic ones. As The New Yorker put it, Almodóvar makes ‘movies in which people go in and out of rooms talking, rather than ones in which they blow each other up in cars.’

It’s the ‘talking in rooms’ that makes me love Almodóvar. His sharp, sparring, dialogue is often pitch-perfectly delivered. In his breakout hit, Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown  (1988), the cutting blows and witty remarks come thick and fast but in Pain and Glory, the dialogue is slower, sparser, and contains multitudes within single sentence. His words hover with longing and desire, they are the words of a master writer and director.

And he is a master, of so many things. His films flip the norm, they examine male sexuality and beauty while looking at female strength and power. His characters are dark and complex in their motivations, messy and contradicting in their actions. His work explores taboo with both tenderness and excitement. As a filmmaker, he is an anomaly. His films, all twenty-five of them, are a genre all of their own. They are wildly absurd, humorous, dark, sly, witty, bright, queer, rich, political, human, emotional, transgressive, and gritty all at once. He’s made films that have entered the zeitgeist, the cultural canon, the indie circuit, and the mainstream. He’s made films that have won Oscars and ones that have been panned by critics as ‘banal’ or ‘boring’. Yet, all of the misfires, the criticism, the success, the fame, and all the rest has lead Almodóvar here, to this point, to this moment of retrospection. And my god, what a moment it is.

As a teenager and a young adult exploring Almodóvar’s oeuvre felt like exploring my own queer desires. My deep crush on Antonio Banderas, my adoration of Penelope Cruz, my attitudes towards sex and male beauty all gave me something. I asked him the questions and he gave me the answers. It felt like school, an education, in the best possible way. He gave me queer people as complex individuals, rooted in the centre of their story, as heroes and villains. He let me see them as sexy and vulgar, rich and poor, powerful and weak. But, as time moved on, he was also asking me questions too, to examine myself, my desires, my thoughts, and my feelings. In Pain and Glory he asks the most intimate questions of me and of his audience. He asks ‘What makes you who you are?’ and, maybe more importantly, ‘Do you like who you’ve become?’

Do you have the answer?


This article was written by one of our Young Content Creators, an initiative ran in conjunction with Young Storyhouse to provide budding content creators paid opportunities to showcase their unique voices within Storyhouse’s digital channels.

Young Content Creators are supported by Film Hub North, awarding funds from The National Lottery.