R for all kinds of stuff. First and foremost, this movie is about heavy drug use. The phrase "chasing the dragon" becomes commonplace because so much heroin is used in the film. Then, there's the graphic nudity that a child witnesses. It's pretty uncomfortable. Sex seems pretty casual in this world. While it doesn't condemn the Catholic church, it doesn't make it look great either. It feels like a moot point to say that language is on top of all of this, but it is definitely there. Well-deserved R.
DIRECTOR: Pedro Almodóvar
I can't believe that I'm watching another Almodóvar movie. It's been almost a decade since I sat down and watched an Almodóvar movie. When I was working at the artsy video store, I realized that anyone who is anyone knows the work of Pedro Almodóvar. I didn't. When the fancy-pants box set came out, I ordered it immediately. This was pretty par-for-the-course for me. Whenever I didn't know one of the greats, I tended to get the entire box set and binge the greats, if not all, of that director's cinematic ouvre. This was an era of disposable income and little responsibility. I can't do such things anymore, despite the fact that I apparently have enough time to maintain a practically daily film blog.
But when I watched that box set, I did so alone. Almodóvar tends to include elements of intense sexuality. I don't know if this sexuality is meant to provoke a sense of eroticism or is more of a normalization of sexuality, but I can't deny that it is there and it is often. When I saw that an Almodóvar movie --in this case, Pain and Glory--was up for an Academy Award, I knew that I'd probably be watching it with my wife. It's kind of like walking into a minefield. I knew that something impressive was going to be on screen. But I also had no idea what was going to be on screen.
Perhaps it is my distance from my initial experience with Almodóvar. I binged those movies. Almodóvar is not a director to be binged. I treated his films like a six pack of Mountain Dew in the '90s. I put all of those away. Most of the cinematic greats probably deserve to be watched and experienced like a sipping whiskey. There's a lot to take in and all lot to unpack. When I watched Almodóvar the first time, I understood that there was value behind his films. He told stories honestly and earnestly. Plot was sparse and character was deep. His visuals were not what I expected. When I think of the great directors, I tend to thing of the camera as a living being, screaming cinema across a canvas. Almodóvar's imagery was often straightforward to the point of simplicity. There were shots that almost came across looking like a soap opera.
But I think that my distance from that original box set that is still in my basement helped me really appreciate Pain and Glory. While it will not put Almodóvar on my list of favorite directors, I see Pain and Glory as something worthy of an Oscar. It makes sense that Antonio Banderas was up for best actor. I mean, we all knew he wasn't going to get it. Joker, after all, was an excuse for Joaquin Phoenix to act so, so much and Pain and Glory is simply offering Banderas a role that we hadn't seen him in. It's quiet and understated, which I have to believe is more challenging than loud and contortion-y. I'm not fighting that decision at all, but I also knew that Banderas didn't have a prayer.
What I noticed first and foremost that Pain and Glory seems like a larger stretch for someone like Almodóvar. I commented that his imagery often were so simple that they looked like they were soap opera snippets. I don't know if that holds true for the majority of the film in this case. There's one shot that I still think, "Oh, there's the Almodóvar I know." But there's some real effort. Almodóvar has always been impressive with color in the past for me, but this movie takes it to a new level. Going through the education of Salvador Mallo was a trip, to oversimplify it to an extent that I feel uncomfortable with. It lets us know that something deep and unique is going on in Mallo's head that may not necessarily sell itself to traditional narrative. It filled me with existential dread and guilt for being Catholic for a moment. (For, like, a half second. I then realized that this was a very specific story and that I, through my faith, did not make Salvador Mallo have a crappy education.)
The way I understand it is that Almodóvar is a deeply autobiographical director. I'm not saying that all of his movies are one-to-one his life, but I know that Pain and Glory reflects a lot of issues that he as a director dealt with. It kind of screams it to the audience that this movie is about him. Mallo, as a director, deals with issues with his sexuality and drugs. Yeah, that is going to make me do a quick Google search to find out how much of the film I just watched was true. Knowing that a lot of that was taken from his life, it makes me question how resolved human beings really are. My big takeaway, besides the fact that Mallo deals with a depression that I cannot fathom, is that he abandons his moral code in a moment. I think I have done things that I never thought I would do. It is a series of small concessions that makes that big decision seem small.
However, that moment when he asks for heroin is huge to me. I can't condemn this choice in this movie. It seems like that was Almodóvar and his life, so it cannot be too far removed from reality. But it is such a toxic moment for this character. There's no pressure put on him from outside forces. He has a history with the dangers of heroin. He has all of these moments in his life that build towards him avoiding heroin. And then...he just decides to take heroin. And it becomes as dangerous and addictive as those ABC After School Specials warned me about. (I'm not that old. I was warned by the Cartoon All-Stars not to take drugs.)
What makes people addicted to drugs? People have addictive personalities. I understand the science behind it. I can accept certain things. While I'm nearly a teetotaler, I have to believe that everyone has an addiction to something. I always get really good at quitting soda...until a special occasion arises and I put away a 12 pack in half a week. I suppose I'm lucky, in that regard. I never want to try drugs. Part of it is because I accept that I'm lame. Also, it seems awful to me. Maybe these morality tales about taking drugs have done exactly what they are supposed to do and reminded me that drugs are terrible. But there's such a disconnect between the awesomeness of drugs and the horrors of drugs. I know that movies out there glorify marijuana and mushrooms, but heroin always comes across as practically a suicidal cry for help.
I loved the meta narrative at the end. I have thoughts, but I keep getting stuck on the drugs element of the movie. Banderas's performance is so good and I adore the fact that he's pursuing something new. I can't shift off of his approach to this character, so it is hard to formulate what I want to say about the framing structure of the entire piece. After all, I watched this movie for Banderas's performance, I should be commenting on it. It's along the lines of the burden of depression and the burden of aging. It's weird seeing Banderas play someone almost normal and human.
But that meta narrative makes me smile and I have to question why. In a way, finding out that all of the flashback sequences are actually flash-forwards. That everything works out makes it all kind of worth it. But there has to be some better answer to that. It is a commentary on Almodóvar and his memory. It is played by professional actors. It is him commenting on himself. If the entire film is a note about his own life and his own personality, that reveal at the end reminds me that everything is artifice. My memory is artifice. Nothing is how we quite picture it. There are elements of reality. I still treat the flashback sequences as canonical to the story. But that framing device both changes everything in the film and leaves it all the same.
This might be my favorite Almodóvar movie. I don't know if the content is what makes it great, but I can preach about how Antonio Banderas owns this role. Is it worth it? Definitely. Will you love it? That's up for debate.
Film is great. It can challenge us. It can entertain us. It can puzzle us. It can awaken us.
Mr. H has watched an upsetting amount of movies. They bring him a level of joy that few things have achieved.