Pain and Glory – A 32-Year-Journey from Inspiration To Big Screen

A tale of memory, regret and making peace with his past – isn’t just his most personal, it is also one of his greatest, and  blurs the line between art and life and mixes autobiography with fiction to powerful effect. As the title suggests, the result is a swirl of heartbreak and joy.

The film drew more than 45,000 moviegoers in Spain on the Friday of release (22 March 2019) , making it the most-viewed film in the country of that day. By 11 September 2019, the film has grossed a total of €6.5 million in Spain, making it the highest-grossing Spanish film of the year at the box office. Worldwide, Pain and Glory has accrued $28.9 million.

A study of acceptance, revelation and reconciliation; it is about cinema’s relationship with the past and its power to reshape memories as a means of coming to terms with it.

The film was Spain’s official entry for the Foreign Language Film category at the Academy Awards. It has also won two Cannes Film Festival Awards – Best Actor (Antonio Banderas) and Best Composer (Alberto Iglesias).

Pedro Almodóvar with Antonio Banderas.

70-year-old Pedro Almodóvar is a filmmaker, director, screenwriter, producer, and former actor who came to prominence as a director and screenwriter during La Movida Madrileña, a cultural renaissance that followed after the end of Francoist Spain. His first few films characterised the sense of sexual and political freedom of the period. In 1986, he established his own film production company, El Deseo, with his younger brother Agustín Almodóvar, responsible for producing all of his films since Law of Desire (1987). His breakthrough film was Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown (1988). He directed Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! (1989), High Heels (1991), and Live Flesh (1997). Almodóvar’s next two films, All About My Mother (1999) and Talk to Her (2002), earned him an Academy Award each for Best International Feature Film and Best Original Screenplay, respectively. He continued to garner acclaim with his later films Volver (2006), Broken Embraces (2009), The Skin I Live In (2011), I’m So Excited! (2013), Julieta (2016), Pain and Glory (2019), and Parallel Mothers (2021). He is also known for directing several short films including The Human Voice (2020), and Strange Way of Life (2023). Acclaimed as one of the most internationally successful Spanish filmmakers, Almodóvar and his films have gained worldwide interest and developed a cult following. He has won two Academy Awards, five British Academy Film Awards, six European Film Awards, two Golden Globe Awards, nine Goya Awards and four prizes at the Cannes Film Festival. In 1997, Almodóvar received the French Legion of Honour, followed by the Gold Medal of Merit in the Fine Arts by the Spanish Ministry of Culture in 1999. In January 2017 he was named as President of the Jury for the 2017 Cannes Film Festival. In 2019, he is was awarded with a Honorary Golden Lion at the 76th Venice International Film Festival.

Almodóvar’s Law of Desire was released in 1987 and focuses on a complex love triangle between two men and a trans woman. Pablo Quintero , a successful gay film director, his transsexual sister, Tina and Antonio, an uptight young man, falls possessively in love with the director and in his passion would stop at nothing to obtain the object of his desire. The relationship between Pablo and Antonio is at the core of the film, however, the story and own drama of Pablo’s sister, Tina, plays a strong role in the plot.

Law of Desire does not follow the conventions of genre, his intention was to make a film about desire and passion: “What interested me most is passion for its own sake. It is a force you cannot control, which is stronger than you and which is as much a source of pain as of pleasure. In any case, it is so strong that it makes you do things which are truly monstrous or absolutely extraordinary”

Law Of Desire

It was the first film Almodóvar made independently with his own production company El Deseo and was influenced by the Hollywood melodramas of the 1940s and 1950s particularly those made by Douglas Sirk and Billy Wilder’s 1950 Sunset Boulevard, there are also the influence of the French writer Jean Cocteau, whose play The Human Voice (La Voix humaine) (1932), is adapted by Pablo Quintero, and the work of Mexican poets in the early 1930s known as Los Contemporáneos.

Gael García Bernal in Bad Education

In Bad Education (2004) an old friend brings filmmaker Enrique Goded (Fele Martínez) a semi-autobiographical script chronicling their adolescence, Enrique is forced to relive his youth spent at a Catholic boarding school. Weaving through past and present, the script follows a transvestite performer (Gael García Bernal) who reconnects with a grade school sweetheart. Spurred on by this chance encounter, the character reflects on her childhood sexual victimization and the trauma of closeting her sexual orientation.

Pain and Glory tells of a series of re encounters experienced by Salvador Mallo, a film director in his physical decline. Some of them in the flesh, others remembered: his childhood in the 60s, when he emigrated with his parents to a village in Valencia in search of prosperity, the first desire, his first adult love in the Madrid of the 80s, the pain of the breakup of that love while it was still alive and intense, writing as the only therapy to forget the unforgettable, the early discovery of cinema, and the void, the infinite void that creates the incapacity to keep on making films. Pain and Glory talks about creation, about the difficulty of separating it from one’s own life and about the passions that give it meaning and hope. In recovering his past, Salvador finds the urgent need to recount it, and in that need he also finds his salvation.

In the three films, the protagonists are male characters who are film directors, and in the three desire and cinematic fiction are the pillars of the story, but the way in which fiction is glimpsed alongside reality differs in each one of them.

Asier Etxeandia, Pedro Almodóvar and Antonio Banderas

Almodóvar deconstructs Pain and Glory

For Almodóvar fiction and life are two sides of the one coin, and life always includes pain and desire.

Pain and Glory reveals, among other themes, two love stories that have left their mark on the protagonist, two stories determined by time and fate and which are resolved in the fiction.

When the first story happens, the Salvador Mallo (Antonio Banderas) is unaware of living it. He only remembers it fifty years later. It’s the story of the first time he felt the impulse of desire. Salvador was nine years old and the impression was so intense that he fell to the floor in a faint, as if struck by lightning.

The second is a story that takes place at the height of the 80s, when the country was celebrating the explosion of freedom that came with democracy. This love story which Salvador writes so as to forget about it ends up transformed into a monologue, performed by Alberto Crespo
(Asier Etxeandia) and also signed by him because Salvador doesn’t want anyone to recognize him. He cedes his authorship to the actor, giving in to his insistent demand. The monologue is titled The Addiction and Alberto Crespo performs it in front of a bare, white screen as the only décor.

The White Screen represents everything: the cinema which Salvador saw in his childhood, his adult memory, the journeys with Federico (Leonardo Sbaraglia) to escape from Madrid and from heroin, how he was formed as a writer and as a filmmaker. The screen as witness, company and destiny.

The story of The Addiction alludes to the passion lived by Salvador and Federico when they were young in the ‘80s. It also explains the reason they separated, even though they still loved each other. The theater, words performed in front of a bare screen, acts as a messenger between the former lovers, thirty years later.

Federico comes back to Madrid after more than thirty years. He goes into a theater to pass the time and, astonished, witnesses the dramatization of his story with Salvador. Their names might have been changed, but the pain, the happiness and the reasons for which he left Salvador are the substance of the show.

Recounted as a monologue by Alberto Crespo, Federico recognizes Salvador in every word even though Crespo has signed the work. The monologue makes it possible for the two former lovers to meet again.

“The actors involved in this block of sequences, Asier Exteandía (the actor), Leonardo Sbaraglia (Federico) and Salvador (Antonio Banderas), are dazzling. I think it is one of the blocks that move me most,” states Almodovar.

If you write about a director (and your work consists of directing films), it’s impossible not to think of yourself and not take your experience as a reference. It was the most practical.

My house is the house where Antonio Banderas’ character lives, the furniture in the kitchen –and the rest of the furnishings- are mine or have been reproduced for the occasion and the paintings that hang on its walls.

We tried to make Antonio’s image, especially his hair, look like mine. The shoes and many of the clothes also belong to me, and the colors of his clothing.

When there was some corner to fill on the set, the art director sent his assistant to my house to get some of the many objects with which I live. This is the most autobiographical aspect of the film and it turned out to be very comfortable for the crew.

As a matter of fact, José Luis Alcaine came to the house several times to see the light at different hours of the day, so as to reproduce it later in the studio.

I remember that during rehearsals I said to Antonio: If you think that in any sequence it’ll help if you imitate me, you can do it. Antonio said no, that it wasn’t necessary. And he was right, his character wasn’t me, but it was inside me.

Over the course of the story we see the veteran director Salvador Mallo in three periods of his life: his childhood in the 1960s; his adulthood in the 80s in Madrid (Salvador is a character shaped in the Madrid explosion of that decade); and we also see Salvador at present, isolated, depressed, victim of various maladies, cut off from the world and from the cinema.

“I identify with all those eras, I know the places and the feelings the character goes through, but I never lived in a cave and I never fell in love with a laborer when I was a child, for example, although both things could have happened,” says Almodovar.

“At first, I took myself as a reference but, once you start writing, fiction lays down its rules and makes itself independent of the origin, as has always happened to me when I’ve dealt with other themes with real references. Reality provides me with the first lines, but I have to invent the rest. At least that’s the game I like to play.”

Years before she died, my mother had already explained to my older sister how she wanted to be laid out.

My sister listened to her with the same naturalness with which my mother talked about herself when she would be dead. I have a childish, immature relationship with mortality.

I have always admired the naturalness which my mother instilled into my sister with regard to death and its rites, as befits a good Manchegan woman. In my land, there is a very rich culture of death which manages to humanize the event without it losing spirituality.

Unfortunately I haven’t inherited that culture, although my cinema is impregnated with it.

Every time I wrote and rewrote the sequence where the mother Jacinta says to Salvador “If they tie my feet to bury me (they usually do this so that the feet don’t fall to each side), you untie them and say I asked you to. The place where I’m going, I want to go in very quickly”, I’d end up crying in front of the computer.

I called Julieta Serrano to play Jacinta at 84. I’d wanted to work with her for some time and to do it again produced me the same pleasure as on our shoots in the 80s. Old age has turned Jacinta into a slightly bitter, dry woman. She doesn’t make life easy for her son Salvador.

When I was working on the fourth part of the script, on the sequence in which Salvador installs his assistant Mercedes in the bedroom which his mother had occupied, it is Jacinta who really installs herself in that part of the script and, with her, the idea of death.

Death was already stalking the mother, but it was also prowling around in Salvador’s life when the narrative is contemporary.

Salvador sits in the armchair where his mother sat four years before and asks Mercedes for a tin box in which she kept a load of bits and pieces.

Thinking of my own mother at that age I’d shown her lovable, funny version in The Flower of My Secret, but for this occasion I felt that it would be more interesting if things weren’t easy between mother and son, if the last conversations were bitter.

Jacinta had become a hard, dour woman with the years and she talks to her son with that cruelty without apparent wickedness with which the elderly and the sick treat those closest to them.

From the first moment, Julieta Serrano’s performance was so precise and genuine that it dazzled me and I wanted her contribution to be longer.

So during shooting I wrote, really I improvised, several new sequences for her, which were inspired by the pleasure of seeing them performed by the actress, but which in some way were hidden in some unconscious part of myself, sequences that became essential for the film and which left me as perplexed as Salvador was. I’m talking about the sequences in the hallway and the one on the terrace.

After writing them and filming them, they seem so real to me that I wonder if between my mother and me there was something similar to that dark underlying tension. I have the impression that those improvised sequences say more about me, about my relationship with my parents and with La Mancha and the places where I lived in my childhood and adolescence than everything I’ve said about them to date.

While they wait in a radiologist’s office, Mercedes shows Salvador an invitation to an exhibition of anonymous popular art.

The invitation shows a watercolor with a boy sitting in an interior, whitewashed patio, surrounded by flowerpots, reading a book, on a floor of hydraulic tiles with a Matisse-style design.

Salvador is struck by the image, he is about to talk to Mercedes about it, but at that moment the nurse calls him, it is his turn to have a CAT scan of his neck. Salvador slides into the CAT machine as if he were entering a spaceship. Once he has got over the initial claustrophobia, the enormous machine, shaped like a gigantic metal doughnut, acts as a time tunnel.

Alone with his memories, Salvador evokes the moment in which the watercolor he has just seen was done. He was that child, he was nine and living with his family in a cave in Paterna, a village on the Levante where he had emigrated with his family in search of prosperity.

It was the 60s, Spaniards were moving inside and outside the country. It was Sunday, his mother had gone to sew at the house of the village’s pious woman, his father was in the bar and he had stayed in the cave accompanied by a young laborer who was finishing off a job on the kitchen sink. Salvador is sitting under the skylight, the only ventilation in the cave, bathed by the light shining directly on him. It forms a very beautiful, very impressionist image, along with the flowerpots, the whitewashed walls and the hydraulic floor.

The young laborer –fond of painting- looks at him for a moment, fascinated by the scene, and decides to draw it on a empty cement bag and take the sketch home to finish coloring it.

This scene comes to Salvador’s mind in the midst of the CAT radiations like a revelation. The scene is totally pure, the two characters act with total innocence, but from the distance of those fifty years which have led him to be trapped in the CAT machine, Salvador discovers his first sexual impulse towards another man, the young laborer.

The moment, breathtaking and magical, is crystallized in that watercolor, which the laborer would send to him months later when neither of them was in Paterna.

Salvador was in a seminary so he could study for his high school diploma and his mother never told him about the arrival of the watercolor with a tender note written on the back by the young laborer. She was the only one who noticed that a sentiment was arising between those two boys and it had to be aborted before it took shape and overwhelmed them. So she intercepted the communication between them.

The watercolor ended up in the flea market in Barcelona and a collector of anonymous works bought it and exhibited it in a little gallery in Madrid where Salvador could buy it fifty years later.

Salvador feels an impulse again as powerful as that past desire; on this occasion it is the desire to narrate the origin and the circumstances in which the watercolor was painted, and his life in the cave, how he taught the laborer to read and write, under the vigilant eye of his mother, and in return the young man painted the cave for her and fixed the sink.

A time of scarcity for the family that he always remembers as bathed by the light from the skylight that connected the cave with the exotic exterior. Salvador races to the computer when he gets home and again feels the excitement of delving into writing, ready to live the only adventure that over the entire course of his life has given him illusion and meaning.

Reducing it to a list of cities and ailments, in relation to the chapters titled Geography and Anatomy, respectively, seemed to me the most concise way of establishing the poor education received by Salvador as a boy and his discovery of geography, through promotional journeys as director, and of anatomy though pain and illnesses.

In just three pages I summarized the protagonist’s poor academic childhood and established his profession as a film director who had been successful, otherwise he wouldn’t have traveled to promote his work.

At the same time, in those same pages I informed of his many health problems, dedicating the minimum time to the matter, without the need to go back over the subject.

Pain is very passive, not very cinematic and boring to recount, but I had to mention it in some way to situate the protagonist and explain his eventual self-destructive reaction, his melancholy and misanthropy.

The narrative force of these two sequences (Geography and Anatomy) is supported by the dynamic, theatrical music composed by Alberto Iglesias and by Juan Gatti’s animated pieces that are both educational and original.

In addition to these pieces, I allowed myself to stress two paragraphs from two books which Salvador is reading: The Book of Disquiet, by Pessoa, and Nothing Grows by Moonlight, by Torborg Nedreaas, to show what is seething in his mind. It isn’t as lucid a recourse as that of the chapters of Geography and Anatomy, but I hope it helps to understand the protagonist’s depressive mental state.

Alberto Iglesias has composed the soundtrack, as he has been doing since The Flower of My Secret (1995). On this occasion he divides his score into three different sounds or atmospheres.

The first is related to the protagonist’s returns to the past. The pieces derive from the overhead light in the cave, they are all connected with the sunlight in Paterna and the overhead light that illuminates young Salvador’s existence in the cave. The second sound is related to the moments of pain and isolation. The suspended musical phrases cover the silences and coexist within the more dramatic dialogue, as part of it.

This second sound also adopts faster, repetitive patterns (in the argument between Alberto and Salvador, for example), more frantic musical movements or little tremors.

The first acceptance evokes the character in suspension (alone and prostrated), the music itself seems to be suspended, when the rhythm grows and darkens the music connects with the character’s anxiety.

The third sound envelops the scenes with the elderly mother and the son, in Madrid. The music adopts the mother’s attitude to death. It isn’t a funereal preamble but natural and in some way luminous in its simple spirituality.

“Where I am it’s neither cold nor hot”, she says in the hospital referring to a dead neighbor. Or “The place where I’m going, I want to go in very quickly”. It’s inevitable that the music has a certain (happy) melancholy to arrive at a utopian place, the preamble to a death accepted without fears.

The soundtrack is written for a string sextet, with piano and clarinet. There are moments of greater sound and orchestral magnitude but without going beyond the limits of intimacy.

Alberto Iglesias, as always, has created a music that is born from the depths of the images like something organic, that envelops and accompanies them on their narrative journey. Once again he has surprised me with his originality, his versatility, his capacity and his dedication.

Rosalía sings the copla A tu vera a capella at the river, along with the choir of washerwomen. It is one of Salvador’s happiest memories. Seeing his mother exultant spreading out the clothes amidst the reeds and pennyroyal bushes, on the river bank.

La vie en rose, in the legendary version by Grace Jones, at the height of disco music’s splendor, appears in Alberto Crespo’s monologue.

Cómo pudiste hacerme esto a mí by Alaska and Dinarama accompanies the credits of Sabor, the film by Salvador Mallo that is shown in the Cinematheque.

The theme puts a date on the film, the mid-80s, and also pays tribute to its author, Carlos Berlanga, one of the great icons of that time and also a much loved friend.

I’ve looked for artists (actors, painters, musicians) with whom I am familiar and, in most cases, with whom I have grown.

There are many works by the painters Guillermo Pérez Villalta, Sigfrido Martín Begué, Jorge Galindo, Manolo Quejido, Miguel Ángel Campano, Dis Berlín, etc. All from the late 70s and with whom I have been shaped in more than one sense. This is one of the most autobiographical aspects of the film.

It is all familiar to me. And of course, going back to the music, the presence of Chavela Vargas and Mina, who belong to my emotional and artistic family.

From Mina I have chosen Come sinfonia to accompany the entire scene of the watercolor sketch. It’s a theme from 1960 full of delicacy and the feeling of an idle, pleasurable summer. Chavela bursts into the middle of the monologue with a verse from La noche de mi amor (The Night of My Love), exultant, infinite in its clamor. I want the joy of a ship returning, a thousand bells of glory pealing, to celebrate the night of my love.

It was a surprise and a discovery to work with Asier Etxeandía and Leonardo Sbaraglia. I can only show my admiration for their performances as two characters who are so important that the film wouldn’t stand up without them.

But the axis on which the story revolves is Antonio Banderas in his performance as the suffering, isolated Salvador Mallo. I think that this is Antonio’s best work since Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! Pain and Glory is, in my opinion, his rebirth as an actor and the start of a new era. I hope that no one misunderstands me.

Antonio is still one of the actors who is best at listening to and looking at his companions in a shot, but on this occasion the fire in his eyes comes from deeper. All of us who witnessed his performance, day by day, were moved.

He has chosen, with me by the hand, the opposite attitude to that which characterizes his most important work, because the spirit of the character is the opposite to the bravura of the characters he has played to date. Profound, subtle, with a very varied gallery of minute gestures, he has pulled off a very difficult character, full of risks.

Penélope Cruz is the mother, when the character is young in the ‘60s. When she is elderly, as I have already mentioned, she is played by Julieta Serrano.

From we started working together I’ve always seen Penélope as the paradigm of the Spanish mother in her film version.

In Pain and Glory the mother she plays is different, for example, from the mother in Volver. Both are of rural origin and have an infinite capacity for struggling and surviving, but the times in which they live are very different.

In Volver she was a contemporary mother and in Pain and Glory she is a post-war mother. Badly dressed, with a worse hair style, it is perhaps inevitable to think again of Sophia Loren, the mother of all mothers.

But in Pain and Glory, as well as struggling to survive each day, like all the women of her generation, there is a quiet bitterness, something like humiliation, which Penélope resolves with delicacy and without gesticulations.

I know that kind of woman, I grew up with them. Although we have stripped her of all glamour, Penélope’s beauty emerges, if possible, even more strongly.

Thank you from here to Raúl Arévalo, who plays Penélope Cruz’s husband, a cameo appearance that he defends as if he were the protagonist. And to Nora Navas, Susi Sánchez and Cecilia Roth, perfect in their roles as assistant, the village’s pious woman and an actress.

The film has the good fortune to have been the baptism of two actors for whom I predict a brilliant future. They make their debut in Pain and Glory. I mean Asier Flores –who plays Salvador as a child- and young César Vicente. Having a nine year old child actor is a blessing, and watching the spontaneity, depth and purity of César Vicente is a privilege. They both ooze truth and the camera adores them. Discovering the birth of two actors and being the first to witness their blossoming is one of the great rewards of being a film director.

Once again I have relied on José Luis Alcaine as director of photography. José Luis is the DP to whom I have remained most faithful, I have made more than half my films with him. Perhaps because of that we don’t talk much before doing the camera tests.

In any case, I offer him beforehand in the sets the range of colors that I want to predominate in each film. The fact is we have the same criterion without having to talk much about it.

For Pain and Glory I gave him two indications, the chiaroscuros, to mark not only the night but the darkness in which the protagonist lives, and the depth of focus.

I wanted the the backgrounds to have the maximum focus possible. Antonio Banderas’ character lives in isolation and, if the elements that surround him and the backgrounds appear in focus, the sensation of solitude is greater.

In addition to the occasional chiaroscuros, although the character is going through a very dark period, the objects that surround him are full of color, he is surrounded by beauty and art.

This shows that before suffering this crisis, the character has been successful in his work (this is my only comment on the Glory in the title), that he is a character with eclectic tastes, formed in the years of the post-modern Madrid.

Alcaine has always been inspired by painting in illuminating his films. We coincide in the references to Velázquez, Rembrandt, Edward Hopper…

In Pain and Glory he also makes reference to Bacon’s light and to his solitary men. I’m delighted with this latest collaboration.