From the sun-saturated courtyard of his 1960s childhood home to the bourgeois digitalism of cinemas, PCs and smartphones in 2019, screens are everywhere in Pedro Almodóvar's Pain and Glory. Young Salvador watches old Hollywood movies on the whitewashed walls of his family kitchen and collects cigarette cards featuring Elizabeth Taylor and other stars. Film is integral to his youthful sense of self, and his greatest loves are ‘The Beatles and cinema.’ Now in his late 50s and painfully aware of his ailing and aging body, Salvador is a successful film writer and director who has shown his movies on screens around the world. Unable to work owing to an increasing list of health problems, he is organising a restoration and retrospective screening of one of his early pictures. But with his devotion to cinema compromised by illness (he can neither work on set nor tolerate the discomfort of movie theatre seats), Salvador’s life hangs in the balance and he must find a new form of therapy.
For the onscreen filmmaker cinema has always been therapeutic, and Almodóvar's surprisingly gentle tale subverts the trope of the great, white, genius male director by slowly revealing the character’s vulnerability and reliance on movies for emotional support. Films, the director tells us (in what appears to be a semi-autobiographical account of his relationship with the screen), make us feel and has the power to transform our lives.
These are, after all, ‘moving’ images, which can inspire joy and encourage empathy as they set us in motion and take us on journeys into other hearts and minds. Screens in cinemas, movie theatres, and homes are portals that project us into distant landscapes and transport us into other people’s lives. The cinematography has a magical, lyrical quality as the camera tracks into close up and pulls back to reveal different locations or temporalities. And through Salvador’s eyes, everything within the frame and on the screen has a meditative splendour suffused with colour. It is filmmaking with the contrast dialed up to 100 and the production design is flawless. Every shot is saturated in almost-edible looking blues, oranges, and pinks; a testament to cinema’s restorative beauty, every frame looks like a picture-perfect Instagram post.
But while cinema has healed Salvador’s pain and brought him adulation from audiences, it is also an addiction and the cause of his despair when he cannot work. Cinephile viewers will no doubt relate. Nothing—not even heroin—can replace the hit that film watching and making brings to either Salvador or his actor friend Alberto. Together, the pair stage a theatrical performance of Salvador’s cinematic memoir (aptly titled ‘Addiction’) in a bid to help them overcome their demons, and they are both always searching for their next screen-related score. ‘The cinema of my youth smelled of piss,’ it begins, before evoking jasmine, and the warm summer breeze, in a tale of grotesque yet sublime need. Movies are base and movies are desirable – just like the humans that make them.
It is while Alberto is performing the play that a blast from the past reappears in the form of the mysterious Marco, who, according to the script, was Salvador’s former heroin-addict lover. As the pair reunite, he expresses his excitement at watching the director’s films and seeing himself—‘us’—in the stories. Similarly, other characters from Salvador’s past reappear in touching flashbacks that recall his childhood and the last years of his mother’s life. Always appearing as if in dreams, the scenes are both real and imagined, human and cinematic, and as material as they are transient.
Throughout the film, Almodóvar paints a glorious picture of the pain and glory that confronts all of us both behind the camera and before the screen in a love letter to the moving image that is all heart. Perhaps lacking some of the punk vitality of earlier works like Tie Me Up, Time Me Down and All About My Mother, or the subversive intimacy of Habit, it is by no means his masterpiece, as some other critics have claimed. However, what it lacks in inventiveness it more than makes up for in its reflective charm. Overall, then, it’s a glorious ode to the power of cinema and an absolute delight to watch.