I approach personal change as my Mother does, which is in regards to space. If you are to change you have to find the space to do so. The art of rebirth is one that centres around reflection and release. A constant and steady cycle that is the crux of not only our lives but mother nature, gifting the opportunity for evolution. It is the act of acknowledging the patterns we adhere to and questioning them ― then finding the answers within ourselves. Often times, that space isn’t what you picture; not a trip away or a grand gesture but subtle moments we stumble into. Often times, you don’t realise the magnitude of the moment until later ― when you reflect. Watching Pedro Almodóvar’s Pain and Glory is one of those moments. It is the kind of film that lingers and binds with your DNA, the way intimate stories do when they are shared with close friends. Pain and Glory tells the story of Salvador (Antonio Banderas), a director who has not made a film in 30 years. As he ages, health issues ignite a deep depression in Salvador, which leaves him stagnant in life and his filmmaking. Pain and Glory invites the audience into Salvador’s life through intimate memories, or flashbacks, that create a backdrop to the ebb and flow of his current experience. Through Pain and Glory, Almodóvar creates an opportunity for change in each of us as we watch Salvador’s story, and are given the time to sit with our own stories in shared company.
“The film hasn’t changed, your eyes have.”
This quote stung because it so sweetly, effortlessly articulated the way that time has the ability to transform perspective. It takes place in a conversation between Salvador and Alberto (Asier Etxeandia), an actor who played the main role in the last film Salvador directed. Salvador mourns deeply for this film and the performance of this actor specifically; he felt Alberto had sucked all the lightness from the perfect character he had written. But upon rewatching the film, Salvador doesn’t mind Alberto’s performance. Alberto reminds him that it is not the film that has changed, but your eyes.
Through each scene, flashback, title cards and performance I was reminded of Salvador’s eye ― his mind, and the ways in which it was releasing past trauma or indulging in memories that make up the fabric of his being. Through the film’s melancholy score, slow pacing, and punchy mise-en-scene, we are reminded of Salvador’s changing perspective. The way that bold reds become softer, more pastel, as we are subtly asked to consider the way that time transforms us, and the uncomfortable process of transformation that leads to either evolution or stagnation. Many times in the film, I felt that I had come to understand Salvador’s changing eye ― but as is the nature of change and people, his decisions always surprised me.
I dream, I dream, and you are here with me.
I close my eyes and in the sky
shines already a light.
I dream of being close to you and kissing you—
and then I vanish into this unreal dream.
Above I hear the angels singing to us—
it is a song filled with happiness.
I listen and I see you even closer.
The music I sense is like a symphony.
The choir of angels makes me dream again;
I yearn, I yearn for this dream to become a reality.
The choir of angels makes me dream again;
I yearn, I yearn for this dream to become a reality—
the reality of a dream of love.
Come Sinfonia, Mina.
This is a translation of the lyrics to Mina’s cover of Come Sinfonia, a song of woozy piano and gentle vocals that caress the edges of the film’s many scenes. Composed by Pino Donaggio in 1961, this song further establishes romantic nostalgia, and its heavy air and uplifting tones shape-shift depending on the context in which it plays. The hollow voice reminds Salvador of the reality of a dream of love, and what does that line mean? To dream of love is a lonely experience. To imagine what a love could feel like does not allow us to feel the uncomfortable vulnerability and messy nature of forming bonds. The reality of imagining these connections is isolating but protects us, so we feel safe; whereas to be living those experiences fully is agonising but fulfilling. The irony of this line in regards to Salvador is that he is a filmmaker, a creator of made up stories and controlled environments to facilitate the dreams of love that he wants to share. However, he also has the opportunity to tell vulnerable stories with his craft if he leans into courage, a skill that has taken Salvador a lifetime to become familiar with. As he sits at his desk listening to this song, writing again for the first time in 30 years, you sense a shift in Salvador’s approach to filmmaking and to life. He gives up a certain control over his art, and his wants and needs shifts from making a perfect film to finding comfort in having the space to share his imperfect story with others. For what is the point of humans having such grand emotional capacity if not to bond? We crave to belong and feel worthy of being heard. And in this moment, Salvador morphs the cycle of his art to incorporate that truth. Simply put, he gives up control in order to create. This shift creates a different texture for the rest of the film and changes the pattern of Salvador’s life, as he paves the way for rebirth.
One of the currents in the film that resonates the most with me is a monologue called ‘Addiction’, performed on stage by Alberto. When Slavador begins using heroin with Alberto regularly, Alberto discovers the monologue and aches to play the part. Salvador ignores his wishes, ironically because of Alberto’s heroin use and the way he feels it negatively impacts his approach to character and direction. However, when Salvador begins using heroin regularly himself, he decides to give the script to Alberto. It’s as if this was a meeting of paths for these two characters; by Salvador diving into a deep love lost due to drug use he is able to find empathy for Alberto. He releases the want for Alberto to play the perfect character and seeks Alberto to do the opposite, to play an authentic character. He wants nothing in return, no credits or promotion ― just to release the story of a past love that he lost to addiction. It feels like an act of cleansing, as if to purge the memories from his mind. It reminded me that whilst time heals, past trauma still sits within us, and it is the art of living with these traumas, in harmony with the present, that takes a lifetime to unpack. For that reason the monologue was an upheaval of the story as the safe, familiar settings of Alberto and Salvador’s apartments and Salvador’s childhood home were stretched to incorporate the theatre.
Alberto performs ‘Addiction’ on stage accompanied by a whiteboard, a chair, and a bright red background. The performance is an undressing, laying bare any form of ego. Through spoken word, Alberto weaves a story of love, addiction, and loss. As he stands in front of the whiteboard his shadow reflects the warm theatre light, shedding layers. This was cathartic to watch because of its simplicity. I felt I was there in the theatre, listening to him. One human sharing their life with another, unpacking what it means to feel and live and the emptiness and lightness that comes with that privilege. This scene sung in a way that I still think about it from time to time ― the bright red light and pale white screen. I saw myself in that moment, standing on stage, undressing.
The whole film in fact felt like an undressing. The Director speaking to us, saying: this is my story, I tell it to you to release and make space for rebirth. It was vulnerable and messy and yet, at its core, so simple. Antonio Banderas gives Salvador’s character lightness, even comedy at times. His face offers up transparency and when I looked into his eyes, his changing eyes, I felt that he was experiencing Almodóvar’s life, he too surprised by its tender ebb and flow. His face reads so knowingly as if he knew the answers where within himself all along, and yet gives moments of rich playfulness. He gives the character air to breathe, and humour, and his vulnerability establishes intimacy between us and the film.
It was cathartic to watch a simple story of life and lessons learned layered with such intelligent filmmaking. I walked away raw, the place where everything lives between my lungs cracked open. The film was so rich it was hard to believe that all those currents lived within the same piece. I had the lasting impression that Pain and Glory was a film made by and for Almodóvar, not to feed into his own ego, but to find catharsis, openly inviting us to step inside the nooks and crannies of his soul. Pain and Glory is a vulnerable piece that left me feeling compassion for another’s life whilst questioning my own, with gentleness and beauty. The melding of past, present, and future wove a gentle texture to the film that let me breathe deeply with the knowledge that Salvador’s life would go on, through suffering and joy ―and that mine would, too.
Pain and Glory is now playing in Australian cinemas.
Sophie Gibson is a storyteller living in Naarm with experience working in Film production and this is the first of a series of reflections through different mediums. Contact via: https://www.sophiemaegibson.com/