Salvador Mallo, Almodovar’s tortured filmmaker in his new film Pain and Glory, was once a happy boy. And, his beautiful mother, Jacinta, carefree and loving; until they moved to a cave. Slowly, young Salvador (although not consciously aware) begins to carry a heavy burden: his mother’s bitter unhappiness. Jacinta’s growing discontent with her life, with the underground dwelling she’s forced to live in, and with the man, Salvador is becoming – seeps into his body, into his very being; taking its residence in a multitude of unlivable physical symptoms. Now, he can no longer create.
This is the state we find him in as the film begins. Yet, really, we first meet Salvador (Antonio Banderas) floating, untethered, unbothered, almost fetal, in a therapeutic (?) flotation tank, trying to escape the constant pressures and pain of his everyday existence. Does it work? No. It seems nothing does. So, we must ask: why all this pain?
As much as this film is autobiographically inspired, my intention is not to “analyze” Almodovar. But, in the way that a character is part-fiction, part-impelled by real life, and a depiction of universal psychological states, I’ll take the liberty to offer my thoughts.
Plus, physical pain is both real and also intensified by the conversion of disturbing emotions into somatic experience. So, it’s interesting, and perhaps revealing, to ponder and understand what the psychological meaning of Salvador Mallo’s pain could very likely be about. In this film and this character, I believe it’s “all about his mother.”
The Good Little Boy
Children learn early not to bother their mothers. They come to understand when there’s too large a weight on her shoulders. Just as young Salvo did with his beloved Jacinta (Penelope Cruz). Such children have no choice but to detach from their feelings; since there’s no mother there to hold them, preoccupied with her own life difficulties.
Where do those feelings go then? No question, Salvador’s physical pain is very real. Yet, there’s more to the story than that. Especially when it comes to his choking.
We’ve met Salvador, the adult man, floating in a tank to escape his pain. But, in the second scene of Pain and Glory, we meet him as a little child – happily watching his singing and laughing mother. Washing clothes and sheets in the river with the other women of the village, flinging them into the air, letting them drift onto bushes to dry.
Such happiness doesn’t last long enough when the family’s forced to move to a cave because of Salvador’s father’s work. Taken far away from the singing women and happy life, Jacinto has to white-wash walls (and, unsuccessfully, her discontent), adding color-splashed tiles with Eduardo, an illiterate worker’s (César Vicente), help.
Salvo, a gentle, quiet, studious, helpful little boy, patiently teaches Eduardo to read. A good child. Doing what’s expected. Complaining? Really not at all, except for saying he does not want to become a priest. But, when it comes to going off to seminary since it’s the only affordable schooling – he goes. He’s smart. Dutiful. And, very creative.
But, Salvador learns well how to choke back his sadness and (sort of) his anger.
Who’s Alberto Crespo? Salvador Mallo’s Self-Hate
Alberto Crespo (Asier Etxeandia) is an actor. Once, thirty years ago, he was the lead actor in Salvador Mallo’s film, Sabor. But, Salvador got very mad at Alberto and they haven’t spoken since. Until, as Pain and Glory gets underway, Sabor is re-released along with a compelling request for a Q &A with Salvador and Alberto.
You see, Salvador got mad at Alberto because the actor didn’t play his character as he’d written him. Didn’t get him “right,” at least in Salvador’s mind. No room for a personal difference; self-expression; freedom of interpretation. Salvador shut it down. As he does his feelings. The film ended badly; the rumors flew; that was that.
But, really, what happened with Alberto Crespo is what lives in Salvador Mallo – at all times. Alberto stands for young Salvador. The boy who can’t get it “right” in his mother’s eyes. We see that – at the end of Pain And Glory when Jacinta (Julietta Serrano) tells him: “You were a bad son.” Bad because he didn’t do it her way.
She wanted a different son. One that catered more to her needs. And, one who fits into Jacinta’s idea of what a man is supposed to be. A man who doesn’t love another man.
What does this do to a boy? It puts him in conflict; it drives him to fight his impulses. Hate himself – just as he hates Alberto – for “doing life” in his own way. And, worse, he can’t be angry at his beloved mother – even though, of course, deep down, he is.
Anger puts Salvador in conflict; makes him retreat. And, hiding away from his feelings ruins his creativity. Gives him more physical symptoms, makes him choke – since his anger (and sense of betrayal) are trapped in his body. And, so is his grief.
Lost Love. Addiction. Federico.
Salvador secretly grieves – not only for his happy mother. But, also, for Federico (Leonardo Sbaraglia).
Yes, he’s stuck in grief. And, that grief is set into his body; a constant reminder of what he cannot feel. Grief for his lost love, Federico; and for his mother who couldn’t love him for himself. These losses put him in physical pain that refuses to leave him alone. Bodily torment that drives him to addiction; trying to stop it. The pain of loss.
Salvador Mallo has suffered a lot of losses. He lost his happy, carefree mother when they moved from the village. Later he lost his first love, Federico. Lost to heroin addiction. And to Federico’s running from his own conflicts – about love.
Salvo too is in conflict about his sexuality, since his mother can’t accept him for the boy he was; or the man he is. And, he loves her. Wants to please her; he needs her love.
What happens when a boy doesn’t feel he’s loved for himself? He can’t create. Anxieties speak to him through his body. Stop him from living freely.
Losing Federico has affected Salvador’s adult life. It’s a reminder of the loss of his mother’s love. Yet, what is Salvador’s biggest loss?
For, Federico is not only Salvador’s lost love; he’s also the lost boy living inside him. The boy he can’t completely accept. Who also turns to heroin to hide from the constant agony of self-derision and self-doubt.
Who Is Federico? Salvador’s Lost Self
Federico is Salvo’s true self; the one he’s lost, pushed aside and “forgotten.” A reminder of his love for Eduardo; who made him first realize who he really is. But, his real self is a self that disappointed Jacinta. And, this (early in life) put Salvo in conflict.
His mother’s disappointment is stored in his body; in his physical pain. What would he do for his mother’s love? Stop living freely. Put an end to loving. Sacrifice himself.
To the pain warring in his body. Which, then, adds up to being unable to create. So, addiction enters the picture. And, addiction is also Federico. Alberto. Now, Salvador. The addiction is to running away. From feelings. From what is.
And, of this conflict – Salvador must get free. It affects everything. Most of all, his creative work. Until the end of Pain And Glory.
When, in writing his play, Addiction, he emerges, faces himself, and – reconciling with Alberto – gives him full reign to play the character as he wishes. Which means that Salvador accepts himself for who he is. Finally.
He can now stop running. Especially when the ossified bone, that thing he keeps choking on – is discovered and removed.
The Ossified Bone? Choking Back Feelings
Yes, something’s been stuck in Salvador’s throat. For a long time. Every time he tries to eat or drink. Even just a little. He chokes. Has coughing fits. The problem is a mystery. Yet, with persistence, it’s finally determined that he has an ossified bone that’s in the way and can be removed. He’s not dying. Salvador thought he was.
But, on the emotional level – what exactly is that ossified bone? What is it that’s stuck in his craw and won’t let him take anything in – whether it’s food or love. Or help. No, Salvador won’t accept help. And, clearly, Mercedes (Nora Navas) – his loyal assistant and friend – tries. She cares about him. Sticks by his side.
But, Salvador has turned sour. He’s shut himself down. Refuses not only help – but hope. And, in many people who have been hurt by love – refusing to hope is the key. Hope feels dangerous. Yet, why?
If Salvador hopes, he might get hurt again. He could lose someone if he lets himself love. Or, maybe, if he tries to create; looks for success and acceptance, he might fail.
That’s what Salvador fears the most. Failure and loss. And, those fears have ruined his creativity. All tied up in his earliest pain – the belief that he’s failed his mother. That her disappointment; her bitter complaints; her unhappiness – are because of him.
This is the block in his throat. Doubts about whether he’s a good- enough son. About what comes out of him. His feelings; choices of love; his creative work; his anger.
And, his guilt.
Was Salvador A “Bad” Son?
All these feelings and doubts are stuck in his throat where they’re not allowed to emerge. And, they’ve ossified there. With his emotional pain, his inability to express it openly – turned to constant physical agonies – Salvador has become immobilized.
Will anything help?
With Alberto’s misguided influence and his desperation, Salvador turns to heroin. That’s not the answer, of course. And, he’s become no different than Federico. Running. To numb his pain, loss, grief, and guilt. But, numbed feelings have to go somewhere. They continue to go into his body.
Salvador’s guilt combines with his losses. Of Federico. And, his mother’s approval and love. Inner torment turns to physical symptoms rather than specific thoughts. If the symptoms could speak, they’d say: “You were a ‘bad son.’ A failed lover.” But, was he?
No. “Bad” doesn’t mean being different than a parent’s desires. Nor does “bad” mean not taking care of his mother in all the ways she wanted him to.
With Mercedes’s help, Salvador goes back through his memories. Relives them. Including the pain of his mother’s death. Mercedes is the voice of reality. And, seeing more clearly allows him to, finally, write again.
Addiction. His story of loss. Of Federico. His early childhood. All – yet, unmourned.
And, knowing, he must express himself openly now – all of his unspoken feelings (yet still unable to own them completely for himself) – Salvador gives Alberto free rein to play the part his way. And, Alberto does. Masterfully. With Federico in the audience.
Realizing – it is the story of Salvador and himself, Federico comes to visit.
Healing. Re-Claiming His Creativity
Federico stands at Salvador’s door. Love has been lost but is remembered. Still felt.
They talk. Federico was married, has two sons, is now with a woman again. Yet, Salvador was still his first love. A love tainted by Federico’s confusions and heroin use; a love he still wants to express. But, yes, they admit, it’s now an impossible love.
A love that must be used, for Salvador, to open his heart; to renew and re-claim his creativity. To fully grieve. Move on. And, to open the door (that was blocked by that now-removed ossified bone) – to all his feelings. Which means remembering, and not hating himself for, his mother’s upsets and displeasures.
His mother couldn’t see him. Federico does. And, accepts him in a way his mother did not. In the wake of this acceptance (even if a loss of love) comes a way of accepting himself – all of who he is – his sadness and grief; the ways he is different from what she expected. The ways that he is (and must be) purely himself.
Creativity cannot be free when sadness and anger are turned away and into bodily symptoms. Mercedes does her best to encourage. Help Salvador take care of himself. To remember his talent. She knows pain too; and never lets him forget that hope and possibility of change are not gone.
In Salvador’s renewed creativity is healing. When he’s finally reunited with himself, he can reclaim his feelings. Remove them from his body. And, when he no longer chokes on what he feels, Salvador can express his own personal truths. He can create.