“Pain and Glory” and “The King,” Reviewed


Creative careers have their seasons, and, in the case of Pedro Almodóvar, we are in the depths of autumn. More than three decades have passed since the juice and joy of his springtime, felt in movies like “What Have I Done to Deserve This?” (1984). High summer, spanning “The Flower of My Secret” (1995) and “Volver” (2006), bestowed a new complexity on his instinctive warmth, with plots that folded in on themselves. Fall has proved a mixed blessing for Almodóvar: there was a nasty edge to “The Skin I Live In” (2011) and a dated air to the farce of “I’m So Excited!” (2013). Yet now, summoning his strength and gathering his obsessions together like old friends, he brings forth “Pain and Glory,” one of his richest and most sombre films. I can’t wait for the snowfall of his winter’s tales.

Our hero is a movie director, Salvador Mallo (Antonio Banderas), whose existence has stalled. He lives alone, in Madrid, besieged by ailments, some of which he lists for us, in voice-over, as if reciting a roll call of his enemies: asthma, sciatica, tinnitus. “My specialty is headaches,” he adds, with a pang of pride. The filmmaker in Fellini’s “8½” (1963) was professionally thwarted, too, but his problem was mental blockage and carnal fatigue, whereas poor Salvador has fused vertebrae (surely a better excuse). As he climbs in and out of taxis, we watch him wince. Occasionally, the screen will burst and bloom into animated diagrams, showing the map of his disorders—or, as he grandly calls it, “the mythology of the organism.”

The mythmaking starts with the opening shot, in which Salvador, gray-bearded and marooned in meditation, is seated underwater, on the floor of a swimming pool. Give the man a trident and he could be Poseidon reborn. As he rises and breaks the surface, memory breathes upon him—specifically, the first of many flashbacks to his childhood. We meet little Salvador (Asier Flores) playing beside a stream while his mother, Jacinta (Penélope Cruz), and her friends do the laundry, singing as they toil and spreading the damp sheets on spears of grass, under a benevolent sun.

Here is a vision of bliss, rooted, like much of the film, in autobiography; Almodóvar himself grew up in a secluded rural village where clothes were washed in the river. We might also recall “The Flower of My Secret,” in which women sit outdoors, make lace, and join in song, or maybe “Amarcord” (1974)—Fellini again, at his most nostalgic—which begins, likewise, with laundry hung out to dry. Take note, above all, of the elegant, fuss-free simplicity with which Almodóvar dips from the present into the past, and back again. “Pain and Glory” is by far his most watery work, drenched in the glide and purl of time; when Salvador, as a kid, catches sight of a grown man soaping and rinsing his naked form, after the labors of the day, he faints into a fever. And how does the M.P.A.A. reward so compelling a scene? With an R rating, citing “graphic nudity.” I despair.

So back and forth we sway, between the years. The restoration of one of Salvador’s early films impels him to track down its leading man, Alberto (Asier Etxeandia). Having quarrelled long ago, they reunite—a fraught occasion, though eased by Alberto’s chasing of the dragon. Salvador follows suit, seeking pain relief, and develops an addiction of his own. This is the one facet of the film from which viewers may shrink; the heroin habit comes across as soothing, controllable, and even civilized, without a hint of the ruin that it can wreak. (For a blunter outcome, see Joanna Hogg’s “The Souvenir,” released in May.) In another reconciliation, a former boyfriend of Salvador’s, now resident in Buenos Aires, travels to Madrid and, half by chance, discovers him anew. They talk, drink, embrace, and part once more.

Not every Almodovarian, I imagine, will welcome this muted mood. Where are the shocks of yesteryear? But flashes of heresy remain, if you know where to look; when Salvador fetches his drug from its hiding place, for instance, he has to kneel on a cushion, like a worshipper taking Communion at the altar rail. There is something thrilling, not dulled, in the very honesty of the film, and in the vigor with which feelings, expressed at any age, can strike us like a slap in the face. “You haven’t been a good son,” Jacinta tells Salvador, when she visits him. Now old, and preparing for death, she is played with great spirit by Julieta Serrano, who was—get this—the heroin-injecting Mother Superior in Almodóvar’s “Dark Habits,” back in 1983. One pleasure of his movies, as of Ingmar Bergman’s, is the ease with which actors come and go, from drama to drama, like a trusted theatre troupe. Thus it is that Antonio Banderas, once a lustful and febrile hunk in “Matador” (1986) and “Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!” (1989), can now assume the role of Salvador, as shaggy and as wary as a beaten cur.

If you go to the Prado, in Madrid, you will find a late self-portrait of Goya, in an open-necked shirt, surveying the sad landscape of his own features and recounting what he sees, without fear or favor. The picture dates from 1815, when Goya was sixty-nine—as Almodóvar was when “Pain and Glory” was released in Spain. What is involved here, in other words, is a tradition of truthtelling, with a long and honorable reach. The new film, like the old painting, is a stubborn, unvain, yet beautiful description of a man whose illusions are failing along with his mortal health, but who is somehow revived and saved by the act of describing. The glory flows from the pain.

The new film by David Michôd, “The King,” starts at the end of a battle. The place is northern England, close to the Scottish border, and the time, we learn, is “the early fifteenth century,” probably just before breakfast. The victor, Harry Hotspur (Tom Glynn-Carney), finishes off a wounded opponent, with the downward crunch of a sword. The folk on the battlefield, and elsewhere, seem drained—by the spilling of blood, and by quarrels over contested lands—before the tale has even begun. Also, Harry is so young. Is this what the wars of dynastic succession boil down to? The fancies and furies of mad men, enacted by mere boys?

That is certainly so in the English court. King Henry IV (Ben Mendelsohn) is a long-haired and spluttering cuss; what, you may wonder, is a bass guitarist doing on the English throne? One of his sons, Thomas (Dean-Charles Chapman), though hardly old enough to be in long pants, wears shining armor, while the other son, Hal (Timothée Chalamet), is a slouch who wastes his life in roistering. Or so we are asked to believe. The trouble is that Chalamet, monkishly pale and junkie-thin, makes an unconvincing reveller. When Hal, renouncing his wild ways, becomes Henry V, we should get the sense not only of a page being turned but of a life upended. Instead, in Chalamet’s burning stare, we spy a dark soul at the ready, primed for the top job.


Sharing is caring!

Leave a Reply