There’s a sweetly somber vibe to the contemplative and quiet appeal of Pain & Glory. It would seem like in the twilight years of director Salvador Mallo (Antonio Banderas), having been inspired to revisit the past, that there’s a lot on his plate to reconcile with. But he’s also aged and looks upon life with a more weary and fascinated stare than be a spirited man of action when it comes to making amends. It wasn’t so much in his nature before and even in his more understanding nature of age, he mostly meanders towards some sense of happiness after a lifetime of troubles.
It’s easy to feel for such a guy because we’re never asked to like him by either the film or the man himself. Salvador speaks to us directly in strictly technical recollections of his past and his medical issues. He lets us know about how his schooling went, where he was given easy grades for his prodigy nature. He informs us of his spinal problems that have led to more problems with his body and down a path of drugs to calm his pain, both emotional and physical. The soundtrack also doesn’t judge. When Salvador contemplates his health and how to obtain drugs, the music goes to synth and computerized beeps. When he later has quiet moments with friends, the music turns curious and sublime, as if to say “isn’t life strange that way?”
Antonio Banderas delivers the performance of his career in this performance. Though he’s mostly seen in weary observation of the life he has lived, he has his moments of emotionally engaging himself in relationships. He tries to patch things up with a former actor friend but they end up clashing from a rivalry that has yet to be buried, with Salvador being the one who has to patch things up. Salvador will also meet a former male lover. Both of them have led much different lives and their attempt to rekindle a romance will have to proceed at a slow pace, despite them being much older now.
We also get glimpses of Salvador’s interesting childhood growing up in a village of illiterate construction workers. Salvador learns to read early and starts giving lessons to adults. There’s also his early fascination with cinema but what’s most important about these scenes is how much Salvador denies himself to go off to boarding school for a better life. His mother (Penélope Cruz) desperately tries to convince him to go, urging him to have a better life. It’s in these brief trips back in time that we and Salvador question how much our parents knew and how much we’ve done with their gift of sacrifice. The film offers no firm answers about where Salvador led a good or bad life as such observation is arbitrary.
There are two scenes in particular that stood out for me. One scene features Salvador speaking through an actor friend in a one-man-show where he speaks of his childhood at the cinema. He mentions they loved the sight of water on the screen and used to urinate in the theater to replicate the illusion. Salvador saying piss is a nostalgic sensation of cinema may sound silly and gross but it also seems to come from somewhere personal and perhaps even more personal in its heartfelt nostalgia. The other scene is one of the last shots where Salvador finds a letter from someone he had taught during his youth. Though intrigued and happy to receive it, Salvador makes no extra effort to track down his student further or question why the letter arrived for him. What’s important to him is that it arrived at all. Maybe that’s all we can hope for in the future and maybe find some sense of joy and inspiration when life begins to settle and seem wearier than it once was.