REVIEW: Dolor y Gloria (2019)

Spanish Theatrical Release Poster – Sony Pictures Releasing International

The following is a review of Dolor y Gloria (int. title: Pain and Glory) — Directed by Pedro Almodóvar.

Dolor y Gloria is Spanish filmmaker Pedro Almodóvar’s twenty-second feature film, but, admittedly, the first film of his that I have seen. It is a semi-autobiographical film about an aging Spanish filmmaker (whose name is unmistakably close to being an anagram for Almodóvar) who feels that his body and mind is working against him. Salvador Mallo (played by Antonio Banderas), the aforementioned fictitious filmmaker, is constantly depressed, and he also suffers from difficult headaches and serious back problems. All of these issues have stopped him in his tracks and made it difficult for him to continue to make his art — his films.

In the very beginning of the film, Salvador is informed that a film of his, Sabor, has been remastered and is being re-released. Salvador has mixed feelings about the film, but he has, according to himself, learned to live with it and understand the issues that he once had with it. Salvador Mallo has agreed to participate in a Q&A session following a screening of the remaster. This is an opportunity for Salvador to reunite with the lead actor of the film, Alberto Crespo (played by Asier Etxeandia), with whom he had a falling out due to the actor’s addiction and its effect on the film.

Though initially reluctant, Crespo agrees to participate in the Q&A, and they then spend days together relaxing while smoking heroin. Salvador soon becomes addicted to the drug which doesn’t just alleviate his pain but also makes him reminisce about his childhood and his relationship with his mother, Jacinta Mallo (played by Penélope Cruz). While Mallo has passed out from the drug, Crespo looks through the filmmaker’s computer and finds a memoir that, to him, looks like a manuscript for a film, a stage play, or something like that. Though initially reluctant to let the actor perform the memoir, Mallo eventually agrees to Crespo’s proposal. When Crespo performs the memoir publicly, it becomes fairly clear just how much of Salvador Mallo’s pain has inspired his art. Perhaps his artistic gift is reliant upon his agony.

Dolor y Gloria took me by surprise in more ways than one. On the one hand, I didn’t know exactly what to expect as a newcomer to Almodóvar’s critically acclaimed oeuvre. On the other hand, a part of me, at least based on the trailers, imagined that this would be Almodóvar’s spin on Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma. And while, yes, this is fairly clearly somewhat of a personal story based on or inspired by Almodóvar’s own life and experiences, Dolor y Gloria isn’t his Roma. Almodóvar walks in the footsteps of Truffaut or Fellini in making a film perhaps not so much about his childhood but more about if not filmmaking then creative processes and the creative well from which our art stems. It is a fascinating film that made want to explore other films about directors and filmmaking.

But I did have some significant issues with Almodóvar’s latest film. I don’t think Dolor y Gloria is as focused or resolved as the material necessitated. Dolor y Gloria is almost plotless and feels episodic and, as a result, the film doesn’t quite have the rhythm or pace that I wanted it to have. It almost starts and stops. Though the entire film features scenes in the present day juxtaposed with Mallo’s childhood memories, the film also does seem divided up into minor sections. One section explains the reason for Crespo and Mallo’s original disagreement, another section is devoted to his relationship with his mother and autofiction as a genre, and snuck in between the two is a really touching scene between lost lovers. It isn’t so focused on a singular pain but a wide variety of pains and their effect on his life and art. I obviously can’t say if this is a thing he is known to do often in his films or not, but I was distracted by the digital graphics that are meant to describe all of Salvador Mallo’s ailments or injuries. To me, it felt like this section was highly unnecessary and ripped from a different movie entirely and inserted into this film.

But this is a great movie. I think that Almodóvar has done an amazing job in creating a luscious atmosphere in the scenes depicting Mallo’s childhood. You definitely understand why Salvador Mallo is so interested in Crespo’s drugs. He doesn’t just want to alleviate his physical pain, he desperately wants to reminisce about and revisit his childhood in any way he possibly can. Though Penélope Cruz is one of the biggest stars in the film, her role is not as significant as I expected it to be. The performance that took me the most by surprise was given by Asier Etxeandia, whose big monologue scene might be the one scene in the film that I’ll remember the film for. But, of course, it is Antonio Banderas’ performance that most people have been talking about, and deservedly so. I’m not as familiar with his Spanish-language films as other critics may be, but he was an actor who I had great admiration for when I was younger. But this is the best performance that I have ever seen Antonio Banderas give on the big screen. He gives himself over completely to a character that is both vulnerable and stubborn. It is a very strong and moving tortured performance.

Pedro Almodóvar’s film-à-clef Dolor y Gloria is a film that contains a great many things to praise. I enjoyed the use of color specifically in Crespo’s monologue. I loved how Almodóvar and cinematographer José Luis Alcaine made Mallo’s childhood home come to life in such a vivid and beautiful way. I was impressed by Antonio Banderas’ committed performance as well as select other performances. But perhaps the thing that I was the most taken by, in spite of a less than satisfying ending, was the closing shot, which, I think, is a triumph that almost makes me excuse many of the issues that I had with the film. Warts and all, however, I think Dolor y Gloria is an often moving introspective film. I think the message on which the film is constructed — the relationship between pain and creation — (though not at all unpredictable) is expressed really well. Almodóvar may or may not have exposed himself in this mature and introspective film, and he chose a good film to do that in as two major scenes, wherein Salvador Mallo reminisces with two characters — his mother and a former lover — that he holds great love for, elicit great emotional responses. I enjoyed my first experience with an Almodóvar film. It won’t be my last.

8 out of 10

– Jeffrey Rex Bertelsen.

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