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Creating and Controlling the Mythologies of Our Bodies: Life Lessons from All About My Mother, Pain and Glory, and the Age of COVID-19

Son tus ojos los que han cambiado cariño, la película es la misma.
It is your eyes that changed honey, the movie is the same.

Zulema(Cecilia Roth) to Salvador (Antonio Banderas) in Pain and Glory.

Pedro Almodóvar’s 2019 Pain and Glory is his most highly acclaimed work in over a decade and only the third Almodóvar film to be Spain’s official submission to the Academy Awards in the last 20 years.  Garnering universal praise and numerous awards in various categories, the movie also allowed Antonio Banderas to earn his first ever Oscar nomination in his 40-year career. As it is an intensely self-referential film, many critics and even Almodóvar himself describe Pain and Glory as the final film in an autobiographical trilogy along with Law of Desire and Bad Education. (Dargis “Almdodóvar’s Dazzling Art”)  While the filmmaker’s statement that the work is a reflection of his own life is an illuminating admission, I hope to analyze Pain and Glory through a very different lens.  I contend that Pain and Glory can also be seen as a companion piece to the 1999 Oscar Winner All About My Mother.1

In some ways, the pairing of All About My Mother with Pain and Glory is an obvious one as much of the plot of Pain and Glory revolves around the protagonist’s sharing with the audience recollections that are literally all about his mother. Though maternal figures abound in All About My Mother, it is not about his mother but rather about his father that young Esteban hungers for even the smallest tidbit of information. In truth, it is Pain and Glory that presents a much more direct and detailed description of someone’s mom, both from the perspective of a young child as well as that of an adult caregiver. However, my point of comparison between these two Almodóvar classics is more much more thematic.  I will argue that Pain and Glory completes much of what is postulated in All About My Mother about the cost of constructing an authentic2 physical self.   This paper will focus on the concept of pain as it is depicted in Pain and Glory and explore an individual’s ability or, better stated, inability to control the body.  I will also analyze the movie’s themes of illness, addiction, desirability, and authenticity that are introduced largely through Pedro’s trademark technique of metatextual referencing. My hope is that, through a careful study of this intertextuality, we as viewers will better understand what Almodóvar is telling us about the powers and the limitations of the body as it relates to the shared human experiences of memory, desire, triumph, and loss. Finally, by discussing some reviewers’ impressions of the film as well as Almodóvar’s writings about his own time in quarantine, I wish to foster an appreciation of Almodóvar’s 21st film in the broader context of “COVID culture” in which isolation, anxiety, and a dramatic increase in the dependence on the internet for most social interaction have become the norm.  Pain and Glory may very well be Pedro’s most personal film, but it also holds a mirror to that collective reality of all of us- made even more palpable by COVID-our impotence before pain, aging, and death.

My thematically-loaded analysis of the relationship between an individual and their body is meant to be a commentary on all human beings and to encompass all gender identities.   While what I propose with regards to the body and its relationship to pain is meant to be a gender-neutral observation, it is worth noting that All About My Mother emphasizes the female form while Pain and Glory showcases the male body. All About My Mother presents a situation in which the male body is all but erased.  The four “fully” biological males in the movie are characters who have next to no agency in the plot’s development. Sister Rosa’s dementia-suffering father is dependent and confused.  Actor Mario is portrayed with the sort of vapid narcissism usually reserved for starlets.  Protagonist Manuela’s son, Esteban, has just turned 18 when he is killed by a car within the first fifteen minutes of the film, and Sister Rosa’s son, Esteban, is still a baby when the movie ends.  Though we learn through Agrado’s one-person show that Agrado has retained his/her penis as a source of pleasure for others, and we assume that Lola’s impregnation of Rosa would not have occurred without a functioning penis, Agrado and Lola are clearly “performing” as women in at least a purely aesthetic sense with their stylized feminine clothing, extensive makeup and glamorous nails. All of the major characters “present” as female and Almodóvar prominently features many posters of theatrical diva Huma as an icon of female power and beauty. Though the entire scene will be discussed in greater detail later in this paper, Agrado’s one-person show is an inventory of a body that has been carefully altered to represent the ideal woman.

In contrast, as the autobiographical work of a gay film director, Pain and Glory, perhaps logically, highlights the eroticism of the male form.   Pedro being Pedro nevertheless, does pay homage to the power and independence of women in the opening scene in which Salvador watches as his mother and three other townswomen sing and chitchat as they wash laundry in the river.  As Mark Kermode comments in his BBC 5 review, “being in the company of women who define the world for you” (Kermode, 002.00-002:04) is signature Almodóvar.3 The female camaraderie and independence are obvious but it is the very first words uttered in the film, by Rosita (portrayed by popular singer Rosalía) that introduce the theme of fascination with the male body. She naughtily exclaims to her companions “I would have liked to have been born a man so that I could swim naked in the river.” The primacy of male eroticism and subsequent male pleasure are underlined here and throughout the movie.  A turning point in the plot’s development is the moment when young Salvador Mallo faints upon first gazing the naked body of Eduardo, his older crush.  Despite our being repeatedly reminded of Mallo’s persistent physical pains, we as the audience are equally aware of Mallo’s fierce masculinity. As Mallo, Banderas is shown to be aging and ailing but he also remains undeniably attractive and sexy.  The reunion scene between Mallo and estranged lover Federico (Leonardo Sbargalia) is charged with passion and in Alberto’s (Asier Exteandia) theatrical performance, the fluidity of his movements and his rugged appearance call attention to his beauty.  In an age when the representation of sexually desirable men often implies a depilation equal to that historically imposed on women, all three male leads are quite hairy and traditionally “manly” in their look.4

The first image we see after the credits is that of a hirsute middle-aged man holding his breath under water.   As he remains still and in a sitting position with both his arms and legs spread, the camera draws our attention to the long scar traversing his neck to his stomach.  Despite having a good muscle tone and a calm expression, he appears vulnerable.  As it is unclear as to whether he is drowning or meditating, we begin to feel a distinct discomfort with the duration of the shot. The combination of the scar and his position evokes a sort of parthenogenesis. These types of “virgin births” abound in All About My Mother in that the female characters seem capable of becoming mothers without the need for men. As Pain and Glory unfolds, we watch as the protagonist filmmaker “births” not just movies but more importantly, his own self.  As with parturition, there is no creation without pain.5

In the voiceover for a two and a half minute-long computer-animated sequence illustrating his medical ailments, Salvador explains, ”I got to know my body through various pains and illnesses.” We as the audience get to know him and the world through which he gingerly navigates in the same way. Accompanied by a series of anatomical drawings, Salvador goes on to present a litany of his every ache and pain.  He refers to “endless possibilities for pain” and says, “But not everything is so physical and illustratable. I also suffer from abstract hardships, pains in the soul, such as panic and anxiety, which add anguish and terror to my life.”  In an October 4, 2019 New York Times interview, Pedro Almodóvar states, “Pain is passive. Someone suffering from pain isn’t easy to film-it’s not cinematic at all.” (Buchanan).  Nevertheless, in this brief, animated montage, Almodóvar manages to successfully communicate the pervasiveness of Salvador’s pain in an entertaining and clever way.

Since Almodóvar places this scene only ten minutes into the film, this prior knowledge is the lens through which we view the rest of the movie’s action. We understand instinctively Salvador’s complex ritual of placing a pillow on the ground, slowly kneeling, and carefully moving every time he needs to reach something.  We notice but do not startle at the amount of thought he seems to require when planning his entrance and exit from the back seat of a taxi.  We feel sympathy and not confusion when the small movement from lying down in bed to sitting up forces his eyes to momentarily flare with discomfort. And we are less likely to judge his decision to try heroin when Alberto expresses surprise at this decision “a estas alturas” (“this late in life”) because we know intimately that pain is his constant companion.

It is the scene in which Alberto visits Salvador at his apartment for the first time in which we understand viscerally the extent of Salvador’s maladies. While pouring his guest a drink, Salvador experiences violent paroxysms of coughing. As Alberto rushes to his aid, Salvador’s face morphs from one shade of red to the other and much like the opening underwater shot, we are deeply discomfited as we are spectators to the raw pain and rather graphic suffering of a fellow human being.

In Salvador’s animated montage about anatomy and suffering, he does state that he” lived the first thirty years with relative abandon.”  Clearly his relationships with his body and with pain are quite different in his youth. In the flashbacks to his childhood, he exercises a deft ability to control his body. His voice is an instrument that he plays expertly and thus enables him to excel academically with little to no effort. He masters writing to the point that he is able to “guide the hand” of the older boy Eduardo. The body’s ability to provide pleasure, and not just pain, is indisputable in his desire for Eduardo and in Salvador’s virile sexual relationship with Federico.

In a deeply introspective film in which the protagonist and in reality all of the characters are carrying rich and complicated pasts, it would be next to impossible to provide detailed backstories. Pedro instead uses references to adaptations of numerous outside texts as shortcuts for his audience to access the deeper themes.6 It is through these references to adaptations of renowned works that Almodóvar creates opportunities for his viewers to meditate on some of the film’s more subtle messages related to an individual’s control of their authentic self-addiction, memory, truth, desire, and society’s constrictions on these forms of authenticity.

Both All About My Mother and Pain and Glory rely on the performance of theatrical/cinematic works as key components in their protagonists’ unraveling too. In All About My Mother, Manuela and Esteban’s father work in the same acting troop and star together in A Streetcar Named Desire.  Tragically, it is after seeing a performance of this same play that Esteban is fatally run over by a car when seeking the autograph of Huma, the famous actress who portrays Blanche. As a reflection of the movie’s theme of maternal frustration, Huma is later cast in Yerma—the final work of Federico García Lorca’ s famous rural trilogy.  A much less canonical work, Agrado’s one-person show provides the most vibrant theatrical experience. This spontaneous performance is the only scene in the movie that in no way forwards the plot’s development, and, had Pedro edited it out, the events that the film chronicles would have remained the same. Pain and Glory abounds with metatextual references (Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Hamlet, Splendor in the Grass, and Niagara to name a few) and also contains a scene in which Alberto performs a theatrical monologue that was written as a sort of confessional by his estranged director friend. While Federico’s happening upon the show is the catalyst for much of Salvador’s emotional reckoning, Pedro could easily have cut the scene containing the performance and with one line of added dialogue been able to narrate the same series of events. I contend, however, that both of these brief scenes contain the heart of their respective films and communicate much about the central themes.7

The circumstances of these two monologues could not be more different. When a performance of Streetcar Named Desire is cancelled due to one of the lead actress’ heroin problem, sex worker Agrado steps in and generously offers to entertain the audience members, citing “Once you come to the theater, it is a shame to leave.” Alberto’s monologue, entitled “Adición” (“Addiction”) is a professional theater production that the audience has purposefully purchased tickets to see.  Agrado’s adlibbed performance is a sort of mini-life story and is thus 100% the invention of Agrado. Alberto’s show is in reality the lived experience of someone else, specifically Salvador Mallo, that Alberto has first discovered through snooping and is later gifted by the reclusive and ailing director. The staging of the two scenes is quite distinct. Agrado speaks from the stage, under a spotlight, in a very formal theater while Alberto is seated in a folding chair directly in front of the audience in a more intimate art house venue.   Agrado’s stance conveys a boundless energy and pride in who he/she has become. Alberto’s seated position may invite intimacy with his audience but also communicates a sort of resignation and listlessness. Through powerful rapports, both actors keep their audiences spellbound but their tones and messages are wildly disparate.

 Agrado begins by explaining, “They call me La Agrado because I have always tried to make people’s lives agreeable.” The word agrado translates roughly to “I please,” since it is the first-person singular conjugation of the verb agradar in the present tense of the indicative mood.  It is also worth noting that the verb agradar can also be translated as “to gratify.” Agrado continues the monologue by listing each of the surgeries that he/she has endured to construct his/her current body. The financial cost of each operation is enumerated and Agrado playfully challenges the audience to calculate how much he/she has spent on silicone after indicating the cost per quart and the various features that have been enhanced.  Agrado clarifies that he/she only has two breasts because he/she is “not a monster” and brags that despite what it cost to buy them, he/she has more than earned that money back.  Similarly, Agrado bemoans the money spent on a nose job when a beating from a client undid the surgeon’s fine work. Agrado’s delightful inventory of physical attributes is more than just a welcome comedic relief from the many tragedies the characters endure in All About My Mother. It underlines the major message that the parts of the human body can be commodified and that man can always remake any part of the body for his own pleasure or profit. Agrado’s intercalated text only mirrors what is evident throughout the rest of the film: a person has (or can have) control over their body.

Creating and Controlling the Mythologies of Our Bodies: Life Lessons from All About My Mother, Pain and Glory, and the Age of COVID-19
Viki Zavales Eggert (Goucher College)
, Literature Film Quarterly
Figure 1: La Agrado (Antonia San Juan) triumphs through personal authenticity.

Agrado self-identifies as not only “agreeable but also very authentic” and concludes this seemingly lighthearted speech with the very profound words, “It costs a lot to be authentic.   And one can't be stingy with these things, because you are more authentic the more you resemble what you've dreamed you are. “Without question, the journey of realizing one’s dreams is facilitated by a person’s ability to purchase, sell, and remake parts in order to make the whole more authentic.

As spectators, we first watch as Alberto attempts to memorize and bring to life the painful memories of another person. After the film briefly cuts to a middle-aged man purchasing a ticket, Alberto is wearing a different shirt, and we realize that we are suddenly at a live performance of the play.  Alberto now seems to “own” the story that he is recounting and the audience’s faces indicate that they share his pain and his tears.  Federico’s strong reaction to the performance and recognition of himself in the character of Marcelo speak to Alberto’s ability to completely appropriate Salvador’s suffering.8

Creating and Controlling the Mythologies of Our Bodies: Life Lessons from All About My Mother, Pain and Glory, and the Age of COVID-19
Viki Zavales Eggert (Goucher College)
, Literature Film Quarterly
Figure 2: Alberto (Asier Etxeandia) takes a seat and steels himself to confront his demons, or better stated, someone else’s demons.

Alberto’s monologue is a tragic one in which addiction and pain triumph over one’s desires and hopes. In contrast to Agrado’s success at giving birth to his/her true self, Alberto bemoans his inability to save the man he loves from auto-destruction.  Alberto’s earnest sharing of another person’s anguish raises complex questions about authenticity and truth that are echoed throughout the other literary/cinematic texts referenced in Pain and Glory.

As with all aspects of his films, Almodóvar is also meticulous with his set designs in Pain and Glory. In the Q& A included on the Pain and Glory DVD, Almodóvar explains that he used his own furniture, art, and books to recreate Salvador Mallo’s apartment. Alberto Crespo’s home reflects the same attention to detail. While the possession that stands out most is the framed poster of Mallo’s and Crespo’s infamous collaboration Sabor (“Flavor/Taste”), other decorative items are also significant.    In Alberto’s living room as well as his dressing room, we see posters for Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and for Hamlet.  The poster for the play Adicción is also displayed prominently in Alberto’s dressing room as well as outside the theater where Alberto performs Mallo’s painful recounting of his relationship with his drug-addicted boyfriend. All four of these works have strong thematic relationships to the movie as a whole and the posters share one important trait: in the center of each frame we see one body part, each brightly colored and each part functioning as a sort of synecdoche not just for the body as a whole but for a common corporeal human action or experience. The Sabor poster is a pair of red juicy lips and a large textured tongue. In some ways it is reminiscent of the famous Rolling Stones emblem and thus reminiscent of the Rock-and-Roll era.  It represents the act of tasting or savoring, as  “sabor” can also be translated as “taste” or “savor.” The Adicción poster shows a bright red heart pierced painfully by multiple needles.  A nod to his Catholic heritage, the image is evocative of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, a human heart bound with thorns to express suffering and bondage.  The largest component of a poster for an adaptation of another Tennessee Williams classic, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, is a pair of long shapely legs. Desire is highlighted here.  The two Hamlet posters, quite predictably, each show a skull that reminds us of the inevitably shared experience of death.

Shakespeare’s Hamlet may be known for the eponymous protagonist’s quest for revenge but it is the other side of the coin, forgiveness and reconciliation, that form important threads throughout Pain and Glory. Salvador Mallo and Hamlet share the very human experience of grief. Both a physical and mental process, the intensity of their individual griefs almost borders on madness. Both wander through life preoccupied to the point of extreme distraction and almost total self-absorption.

In truth, a close reading of both works allows for the analysis of many common themes such as the importance of the senses, feminist power, and the prevalence of the Oedipus complex. However, it is the centrality of Hamlet’s concept of honesty and, in particular, self-honesty, that resonates most throughout Pain and Glory.

Hamlet emphasizes the preponderance of dishonesty when he tells Polonius in Act II, Scene 2, “To be honest, as this world goes, is to be one man picked out of ten thousand” (2.2.178-179). Much of Hamlet’s anguish stems from his anger at his Uncle Claudius’ deception, murder and betrayal of his father.  From Salvador’s perspective, deception and betrayal also abound in Pain and Glory.  Salvador’s mother never sends him Eduardo’s drawing and Salvador and Alberto have not spoken for over three decades because of their unresolved conflict over “Sabor.” Perhaps Salvador even feels that Federico has been unfaithful because he has been able to have successful relationships post-addiction while it appears that Salvador has not. Mercedes’ not disclosing full information to Salvador about his medical condition and Salvador’s mother’s allowing la Beata to think that young Salvador wants to be a priest are perhaps less troubling examples of dishonesty.

Polonius’ often quoted words, “To thy own self be true,” (1.3.78) relate to the significant themes in Pain and Glory of self-honesty and authenticity. Salvador’s agonizing way of moving is the physical manifestation of the regret and grief that have taken control of his life.  In contrast with Agrado who has achieved an enviable happiness through his/her ability to “Thy own self be true,” Salvador is riddled with self-doubt and an inability to fully accept his past. Ironically, Alberto who is both a heroin addict as well as the successful teller of someone else’s story, appears more at peace with his life than the conflicted Salvador. In his anguished conversation with his mother, during which she expresses deep hurt that he believed his lifestyle left no room for her to “take care of him,” Salvador attempts to define this “lifestyle” as one of the excessive travel of a filmmaker. In truth, it is his identity as a gay man that has formed a barrier and triggered his mother’s brutally honest words “You have not been a good son,” and his equally frank query, “Have I failed you just by being the why I am? ”(133.16)

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof deals with many of the same issues that Pain and Glory does: addiction, desirability, homosexuality, illness, and authenticity/truth.  Former high school track star Brick is an alcoholic and his wife Maggie “the Cat” is frustrated because her husband does not find her desirable.  Brick’s overbearing father, Big Daddy, is suffering from cancer. The family members differ in their access to Big Daddy’s real diagnosis and, throughout the play, characters continually lie both to others as well as to themselves.  Brick declares, “Mendacity is a system that we live in,” and “We’re through with lies and liars in this house.” Big Daddy roars/queries, “Didn't you notice a powerful and obnoxious odor of mendacity in this room? There ain't nothin' more powerful than the odor of mendacity.”9 Brick’s inability to accept or admit his homosexuality is among the most pungent of those lies.

In addition to the plays depicted in the posters, during Alberto’s rehearsal for Adicción, we see brief images of two easily identifiable films: Marilyn Monroe’s Niagara (1953) and Natalie Wood’s Splendor in the Grass (1961).  A film noir classic, Niagara is a complex suspense story in which Marilyn Monroe’s character, Rose, and her lover, Patrick, (Richard Allan) plot to kill her troubled Korean War veteran husband, George (Joseph Cotton).   In a film that focuses on lies, betrayal, and desirability, things do not go as planned and it is the husband who kills the lover and then after killing his wife, feigns his own death.  Much like in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, there is frustration around who is desirable and not desirable to whom.

Based on William Inge’s play, the film Splendor in the Grass tells the tragic story of the courtship between two teenagers in 1928 Kansas. Heeding her mother’s admonitions about premarital sex, Deanie (Natalie Wood) refuses to have sex with boyfriend Bud (Warren Beatty) and their subsequent frustration leads to a series of devastating consequences.  Focusing on both familial expectations as well as societal pressures, Splendor in the Grass mirrors Pain and Glory’s themes of the risk one takes when violating social norms in order to construct an authentic self and the great cost of attempting to control one’s body. William Wordsworth’s poem “Intimations of Immortality,” from which the title of the movie is taken, deals with other topics relevant to Splendor in the Grass and Pain and Glory: aging, memory, and glory.10 These movie posters that Almodóvar sneaks into the background of pivotal scenes function as “silent” texts in which the visual, already a key element in the art of film, is granted even more primacy.  They are shortcuts through which  entire experiences can be referenced with  single images, much like when Almodóvar incorporates anatomical illustrations as  a way to comment  on our common corporeal reality.

In the animated montage about his ailments, Salvador says, “As with the Greek gods, our only way of relating[ to our bodies] is through sacrifice.” In All About My Mother,” these sacrifices pay off. Agrado masterfully manipulates the body to provide pleasure to others and ultimately to provide his/her own pleasure and financial survival.   The other characters in All About My Mother are also successful at controlling their bodies.  The transplant doctors at Manuela’s job repurpose individual organs, including Manuela’s own son’s, to “create” life. Lola has gender surgery but is a still able to finally fulfill the dream of becoming a father. Nina successfully kicks her heroin habit.  Despite her advanced age and the death of her biological son Esteban, Manuela becomes a mom again through Sister Rosa’s baby Esteban. And happily, Baby Esteban’s HIV status reverses. In contrast with such characters, all Salvador’s sacrifices make appear to be in vain.  

Further analysis of the film, numerous reviews from major newspapers and YouTube channels, and quotes from Almodóvar’s own “Lockdown Diaries” underscore Salvador’s sad circumstances and his ambivalence towards his ability, or even desire, to change his situation. In a New York Times piece, “Pain and Glory Review: Almodovar’s Dazzling Art of Self-Creation,” Manohla Dargas says of the film’s protagonist, “He’s gravely depressed, and his body seems to have permanently surrendered to his maladies and in another New York Times article entitled,“Why Pedro Almodovar’s Newest Film Frightened His Friends,” Kyle Buchanan states that Salvador has “a body that has begun to turn on him.”  Sadly, Mallo who chokes even on water and winces with pain at the smallest of movements, is vanquished by his own body. In a BBC 5 review, Robbie Collins describes Antonio Banderas’ Mallo as ”diminished.”

Rather than confidently trying to manipulate his body into what “he dreams of being” (as Agrado would say), Salvador is resigned to his current state and lets his body define and control him. When Federico phones after decades of separation to ask how he is, Salvador simply states, “Old.”  When Mercedes tells him that he has too much time to think about his illnesses and his doctor suggests that he start a new project, Salvador defensively responds, “Making films is a very physical job.” Unlike Zulema and Alberto who beg for the opportunity to work, Salvador acknowledges that he has moved into a new stage of life.

Sarah Street’s brilliant essay “Mad About the Boy: Masculinity and Career in Sunset Boulevard” focuses on the interdependence between masculinity and career. While the representation of gender roles in Pain and Glory is hardly traditional, Salvador does appear to lose much of his self-identity and virility when he is rendered unable to work. In an AARP interview, Almodóvar admits, “I do not have a very positive view of getting old [and slowing down.],” and that in his case, age has not brought wisdom. The recently-turned 70-year-old Almodóvar explains,” Constant back pain and headaches isolate me.”

In an interview with Antonio Banderas subtitled, ”How the actor's heart attack at 56 helped make his Pedro Almodóvar film an Oscar-buzzed masterpiece, “ he too speaks from a very personal viewpoint about our relationship with our bodies and aging.  He refers to his own “process of humility” and the “sadness” and extra sensitivity that were results of his heart attack. Banderas recalls that Pedro said to him, “There’s something in you that’s changed. Don’t hide it.” When asked to what the titular “pain” refers, Banderas replied, ”Physical pain, isolation and solitude.” 

The surprisingly insightful YouTube review by twenty-something brothers Cole and Justin, known to the social media world through their channel “The Oscar Expert,” shows a lot of understanding about the experience of aging and describes Salvador as  “Sitting around his house being very lonely. Trapped in the echo chamber of his own memories.” Quite eerily, their depiction of Salvador’s solitary existence foreshadows the reality of many people during the COVID pandemic of 2020.11 In a series of articles titled “Pedro Almodóvar’ Lockdown Diary” published on the BFI website, the director of Pain and Glory meditates on his personal experiences during the global pandemic. He somewhat reluctantly admits, “The first thing that I’ve discovered is that the situation is not so different to my daily routine—I am used to living on my own and being in a state of alarm.”  He also writes, “The current reality is easier to understand as a fantasy fiction than as a realist story. The new global and viral situation seems to come out of a 50s sci-fi story, the Cold War years. Horror films with the crudest anti-Communist propaganda.’ Almodóvar elaborates “Evil always came from the outside (communists, refugees, Martians).”

This last observation is especially relevant to Pain and Glory if we remember what Salvador says in his animated voice over about the Ancient Greeks’ understanding of the “mythology of the body.”   The Ancient Greeks believed that pain was an independent being that invaded a subject and took it over. Poena was the Ancient Greek goddess of divine retribution who punished mortals for grave transgressions(Pain Project).The Latin word poine came to mean penalty andis the origin of our current English word "pain." Without question when Salvador refers to his “abstract sorrows,” and “aches of the soul,” he acknowledges that some of the physical ailments enumerated have their origins in his inability to recognize, accept and surpass his past pains and glories.

Creating and Controlling the Mythologies of Our Bodies: Life Lessons from All About My Mother, Pain and Glory, and the Age of COVID-19
Viki Zavales Eggert (Goucher College)
, Literature Film Quarterly
Figure 3: As he catches up with his old flame, Salvador Mallo’s (Antonio Banderas) eyes offer a cornucopia of emotions ranging from admiration to regret to envy to desire.


Kleos is the Greek word often translated to "glory" or “immortal fame” and is a key concept in The Iliad, where it is earned through great deeds. Kleos also can denote renown or rumor.  Though Salvador is shown in relative isolation, we know through his conversations with Mercedes, his awkward virtual Q and A aboutSabor and Federico’s comments about his family knowing Salvador’s work that Mallo has a distinct public persona.  We also know through his comment to Alberto about their supposed 32-year feud that “Gossip, like people, gets old.”

Much has been written about the meteoritic increase in social media usage during this global pandemic and the accompanying quarantine.  Many articles detail the physical side effects of hours spent sitting and staring at a screen while others have focused on the changes to the way workspaces and companies are configured.  In an article for the Mayo Clinic website, Dr. Edward R. Laskowski warns that excessive sitting increases the risk of death from cardiovascular disease and cancer and Kate Rockwood and Beth James of Prevention refer to the “sitting disease” and its possible manifestations in blood clots and depression.  Forbes’ William Arruda muses on how the pandemic has changed the layout of the places we work and educator Daniel Fay Mathras comments on the changes in how we dress when we get there. However, the drastic rise in social media participation has also affected the way we show ourselves to the world and has forced people to put themselves on display. One could argue that kleos is now earned through the number of likes and followers and that our almost strictly virtual existence facilitates greater control over how others see us. 

In his four part, on-line “Lockdown Diaries,” Almodóvar does not choose to create an aggrandized portrait of a stoic, brave or wise individual worthy of respect or envy.  Rather he presents himself as vulnerable, listless, and directionless.  As the Oscar Expert brothers argue that Pain and Glory proves “How the perception of normal things and relationship to the past change as [one] grows older,” (Cole and Justin) the confined Pedro has a muddled sense of time and routine. He writes, “The novel feeling of the first few days, where one would experience new sensations, has already disappeared. I suppose that is one of the dangers – to give yourself to routine as one day follows another, and so on.”  He describes wanting to “flee from melancholy and sadness, or at least that passive sadness that reduces you to the most comfortable corner of the sofa.” In Pedro’s constructing of his authentic self, he does not promote the culture of FOMO that so many associate with social media but rather displays himself as utterly vulnerable and with little to no control. It would appear that the ego is the price for being authentic in the real world.

Along with the erosion of the human illusion of control and the subsequent knock to our egos that the global pandemic of COVID-19 has caused, comes the inevitable specter of death.  Since Manuela is a nurse in the organ donation department, death as an abstract concept is present in All About My Mother from the very first scene in which nurse Manuela helps facilitate an organ transplant. Amidst the many comedic moments, we as the audience experience the deaths of three major characters: Manuela’s teenage son Esteban, young Sister Rosa, and Manuela’s ex Lola.12 In contrast, in a BFI interview, Pedro refers to the significance of the character of the “older and ill” mother 124 minutes into Pain and Glory as the “entrance of death in the story’ and that her presence in the movie is “not only about the death of the mother but the idea of death itself.”    In truth, a dread, an awareness, and even a hope for death permeate Salvador’s every moment. Much like Hamlet’s “To be or not to be,” Salvador often seems to be on the fence about his continued existence.  Before bed, he reads the line, “Life disgusts me like a useless medicine. And it is then when I feel with clear visions how easy it would be to get away from this tedium if I had the simple strength of wanting to really push him away” and when Zulema asks him what he will do if he is no longer going to work, he responds, “Live, I suppose.”  As both Alberto and Federico independently comment to him that his home is “like a museum,” Salvador’s commitment to living a full life seems dubious at best.  He is not up to the challenge that Big Daddy posits in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof: “I've got the guts to die. What I want to know is, have you got the guts to live?” The cultural dissimilarity between Tennessee Williams’ mid-20th century American Southern  bombastic patriarch and Pedro Almodóvar’s 21st century Spanish  weary iconoclast point to the commonality of this human dilemma.

In a “Good Morning America” segment, Banderas encourages people to see the film even if they are not familiar with Almodóvar’s work because, regardless of how personal the story is, the themes are “universal.”13 The actor’s definition of glory in his AARP interview does not reference the “great deeds of an individual.” Rather, glory has to do with “growing up” and he states “Not everybody can do that confession on the screen, coming to terms and reconciling with his past (Adams).  That’s the glory: the capacity to see, and recognize and continue working.” Thus the “glories that build slowly” (Bucey  A career-high glimpse) are more subtle ones that revolve around surviving, creating, and enjoying.  The characters in All About My Mother and the supporting ones in Pain and Glory have learned how to be authentic, how to accept their pasts, and how to forge/see a path forward.

In “Pedro Almodóvar on Finding His Inspiration” (Screenwriters’ Lecture Series), the director describes his protagonist as one “who has never taken time to think about himself” but who due to circumstances is “forced to look back and invoke memory.”14 Pedro says, “During the writing, I wanted to save Salvador because it was like saving myself.”15 From Pedro’s point of view, it was Salvador’s need to tell a story again that saved him. He declares, “It was the best ending that I could imagine for Salvador and for myself.”  Therefore, while the final words in the monologue “Adicción”may be sobering ones, the message of Pain and Glory is not a pessimistic one.  Alberto concludes, “Love may not be enough to save the person you love,” but it may very well be more than enough for Salvador to save himself.

Despite my having chosen not to focus on auto-fiction in Pain and Glory, I cannot deny the similarities between fictional Salvador and real Pedro. Neither initially appears as resilient as their characters. Moreover, Pedro’s Lockdown Diary entries and Salvador’s response to his doctor that “one never knows if the work will be a comedy or a drama” convey similar sentiments. The uncertainty of the unraveling of life’s events remains central. 

Without regard for the frustration and resignation that Pedro expresses in his “Lockdown Diaries,” he stated in a September 2020 Criterion interview, “I’m starting my next film because, despite uncertainty, I have to go on, I need to keep making films,” (Hudson, “Pedro Almodóvar’s The Human Voice”). The movie to which he was referring, The Human Voice,  is his first work in English and is a free adaptation of Jean Cocteau’s 1930 play of the same name. The story told is that of an elegantly dressed woman, portrayed by Tilda Swinton, pacing in her well-appointed apartment, as she talks through AirPods to the lover who is about to leave her for another woman.  When Swinton describes the “claustrophobia and despair” that her character endures, it is easy to draw parallels to the COVID-19 quarantine experience.  Social contact made possible only through technology and the acceptance of a precarious future underscore Pain and Glory, The Human Voice, and our current global reality. Yet Guy Lodge, in his Variety review of The Human Voice says that Swinton “made the woman less of a victim, more in command of her own considerable pain.”  As we saw in many of the adaptations referenced in Pain and Glory as well as the film itself, one organ functions as synecdoche for the entire human body.   In Almodóvar’s latest film, the eponymous human voice expresses words that possess real power, even if there is no one there to hear them or acknowledge the truth that they express.

The lack of total control that the characters in Pain and Glory have over their bodies is not synonymous with being powerless or hopeless or inauthentic.  Throughout his forty-year career, Almodóvar has always intuited what his audiences have needed to see and learn at any specific moment in time. Pain and Glory shows us the power of accepting one’s authentic self, of relinquishing control and of facing uncertainty. In the age of the global pandemic of COVID-19, there are no greater gifts.


1  For a more detailed explanation of some of the central themes in All About My Mother, see my article “Authentic Mothers and Artificial Monsters: Maternal Frustration in Pedro Almodóvar’s All About My Mother.” 

2  In the age of our extreme dependence on social media, authenticity is a much-debated term. For a fascinating study of the intersection between personal fulfillment and social norms, see the Scientific American Blog titled “The Inconvenient Truth About Your Authentic Self.” For a more light-hearted meditation on the topic, I enthusiastically recommend Claire Pooley’s uplifting The Authenticity Project.  For the sake of simplicity and clarity, I will employ Merriam-Webster’s third definition of the term authenticity as true to one's own personality, spirit, or character.”

3  Almodóvar confirms Kermode’s observation. When speaking of his mother and the women in his childhood neighborhood in an interview included in the Pain and Glory DVD, Almodóvar states,” All my upbringing came through that group of women. These women have always been my reference.  My life was those women.”

4  In the last two decades, many academic studies have been devoted to the theme of depilation practices among Western men and their relationship to representations of beauty and desirability. In their 2008 Body Image article “Hair today, gone tomorrow: A comparison of body hair removal practices in gay and heterosexual men,Yolanda Martings, Marika Tiggeman, and Libby Churchett write, “Removing body hair is not new in western cultures. However, historically this behavior has been culturally sanctioned primarily for females (Tiggemann & Kenyon, 1998). Men, conversely, have not been noted as hair removers, perhaps because the presence of body hair has been indelibly associated with masculinity (Basow, 1991). Other interesting articles devoted to the interplay of hair, masculinity and desirability include: “Body Depilation in Males: A New Body Image Concern?” by Michael Boroughs and J. Kevin Thompson in International Journal of Men s Health(2014), “Groomers and Consumers: The Meaning of Male Body Depilation to a Modern Masculinity Body Project” by Elena Frank in Men and Masculinities (2014), and Susan A. Basow’s and Katherine O’Neil’s fascinating 2014 article in Body Image entitled Men’s body depilation: An exploratory study of United States college students’ preferences, attitudes, and practices.”  With regards to popular culture, a quick January 4, 2021YouTube search of the term “manscaping” produced over 100 different videos including but not limited to, practical tips, commercial ads, comical takes, celebrity commentary, and philosophical musings.

5  Gabriel García Márquez’s famous quote from No One Writes to the Colonel about birth is worth remembering in light of how different Salvador’s path is from what his mother had imagined for him. Márquez wrote, “Los seres humanos no nacen para siempre el día en que sus madres los alumbran, sino que la vida los obliga a parirse a sí mismos una y otra vez.” (“Human beings are not born forever on the day that their mothers give birth to them. Rather, life forces them to give birth to themselves time and again.”)  www.goodreads.com/author/quot

6  The texts that Salvador is shown reading also underline key themes in the movie.  These books include: The Carnivorous Lamb, The Book of Disquiet, Nothing Grows by Midnight, and A Manual for Cleaning Women. Written by Spaniard Agustín Gómez-Arcos, The Carnivorous Lamb chronicles the experiences of a gay man coming of age in Franco’s Spain amidst familial and societal disapproval. The posthumously published The Book of Disquiet, by Portuguese philosopher Fernando Pessoa, is considered a “factless autobiography” with the body of the text attributed to one of Pessoa’s alternate writing names and the preface attributed to another one of these orthonyms. His use of pen names, ideas about reconciling with the past, and his claim that “Everything is theater,” create a sort of funhouse in which essential aspects of Pain and Glory are reflected and yet distorted. Nothing Grows by Midnight, the work of Norwegian Torborg Nedreaas, tells a story within a story of a woman’s toxic relationship and Lucia Berlin’s A Manual for Cleaning Women is a collection of short stories about women in various walks of life. Both works, much like Splendor in the Grass, underscore the harmful consequences for everyone, and for women in particular, of breaking societal norms.

7  In an interview with Asier Exteandia and Antonio Banderas, Exteandia emphasizes the importance of the monologue. He explains that the monologue was the screen test for the role (002:31-002:38) and that he understood it as “the emotional foundation of everything else and that based on it he understood his role in the movie.” (002:54-003:07) He elaborates with, ”Every time I became lost, I would return to the monologue.”(003:37-003:41) Translation is my own.

8  It is worth noting that Salvador offers the rights to Alberto as long as Alberto ensures that the work is in no way linked back to Salvador. This, of course, turns out to be both foreshadowing as well as ironic as Federico, the subject of the monologue, happens to come upon a performance of the play and this coincidence sets in motion many emotions and actions.

9  Please note that all quotations from Cat on a Hot Tin Roof are from the kindle edition of that play and therefore not paginated.

10 In addition to his pivotal performance of Adicción, Alberto’s interactions with Salvador introduce other impactful examples of meta and intertexuality. While begging to stage Salvador’s monologue, Alberto mentions that he will be appearing in gay French playwright Jean Cocteau’s Le bel indifférent.  Cocteau’s use of numerous pen names was similar to Pessoa’s and we can easily argue that Mallo’s disassociation of his name from the work Adicción and Almodóvar’s creation of an alter ego in the character of Salvador Mallo further this tradition. Interestingly, the University of Oxford Department of Psychiatry defines the syndrome of La belle indifference as “an apparent lack of concern shown by some patients towards their symptoms.” This condition seems rather ironic given Salvador’s obsession with his ailments. 

11 Banderas announced on August 26, 2020 that he had “overcome COVID-19 infection after 21 days of disciplinary confinement.”(Variety) He had received his positive diagnosis on August 10, 2020-his 60th birthday. The Spanish newspapers also published photos of Pedro and his producer brother Augustín Almodóvar leaving the hospital after getting tested for COVID-19.

12 It seems sad foreshadowing of this age of COVID-19 when Manuela says to Lola, ”You are not a human being. You are an epidemic.”

13 Other film critics concur with Banderas and Micah Bucey, in particular, when describing the Spirituality in Practice 2019 film winner Pain and Glory, refers to Salvador’s pains as “both specific but universal.”

14 We should not fail to notice that Salvador’s mother prays to Saint Anthony, the patron saint of lost things. Perhaps she interprets her son as the lost item.

15 In his film review, Robbie Collins points out that Salvador Mallo is an acronym for “so Almodóvar.” The name Salvador, though fairly common in the Spanish-speaking world, translates to the word savior and thus Almodóvar alludes to the possibilities of hope and redemption for his protagonist and himself.

Works Cited

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