Almodóvar’s Recovery

Pedro Almodóvar’s latest film, “Pain and Glory,” is about quitting heroin.

Posted Oct 05, 2019

Pedro Almodóvar’s latest film, Pain and Glory, is about quitting heroin.

And it’s about recovery. But the film director Almodóvar’s movie portrays, Salvador Mallo (played by Antonio Banderas), is himself not recovering from addiction (he doesn’t undergo withdrawal when he quits smoking the drug). Rather, Mallo is recovering his will to live amidst physical pain and emotional isolation.

In this state he is invited to celebrate his greatest hit, a 1980s film called “Sabor.” In considering attending the anniversary celebration, Mallo looks up its star, Alberto, with whom he hasn’t spoken in decades.

The reason? Alberto played his role in the doldrums of heroin. “Why couldn’t you just take cocaine and alcohol like normal people, like me?” Mallo asks.

Like the real Almodóvar, Mallo hasn’t taken heroin.  But the director in the film does take heroin from Alberto when they reunite. 

In both his real life, and character Mallo’s, Almodóvar is highly dependent on painkillers. Thus, the director may have thought, substituting heroin embodies only a symbolic difference, from a prescription opioid to an illicit one. 

Yet heroin’s effects on Mallo are not simply negative. He falls into a reverie in which he vividly recalls his childhood. His life then was impoverished but in other ways idyllic — including having a loving Penélope Cruz for a mother.

And this reverie seemingly moves him along the road to recovering what he has most lost. According to New York Times reviewer Manohla Dargis, this was his desire. “He’s alone and hasn’t made movies in a while, and a new one doesn’t seem to be on the horizon.”

Now, with his filmmaking urge rekindled by this chemical muse, Mallo will be able to give up his recent and moderate heroin habit. In a way, he has recovered from dying:

How do you come back from the dead? For Salvador, the answer comes in fits and starts, in the burnished images of his childhood, in an old lover’s passion, in the power of art.

But Mallo isn’t the only one Glory depicts kicking heroin. There’s Alberto, whose drug habit is now many decades old.

While visiting Mallo’s apartment, Alberto finds a script on his computer titled, “Addiction.” Alberto loves the material and feels that it will revive his career

Mallo later brings a printed version of the piece to the actor’s house. When he encourages the actor to smoke with him, Alberto is already annotating the script, and declines the offer, saying that he needs to focus. In fact, the play does become a successful vehicle for his return to acting.

There is one more person who recovers from addiction in the film. The “Addiction” script is about how Mallo couldn’t rescue his true love, Federico, from heroin, and his partner disappears — only to reappear by chance in Madrid where he sees Alberto perform “”Addiction.” The ex-lover subsequently shows up at Mallo’s apartment, where he reveals to Mallo that he went to Argentina.

Federiko claims he couldn’t get heroin there, and so he quit. He also got married and had two sons and started a successful restaurant. “Glory” may thus challenge those who don’t believe that gay men can live contented heterosexual lives. But Almodóvar doesn’t tend to see things in the black-and-white terms we Americans do. Among other things, the men all drink liquor, and get drunk, without relapsing to heroin. 

Mallo is less “addicted” than either Alberto or Federico; he throws his stash out just before his ex-lover shows up at his home. Meanwhile, he has become re-invigorated about movie making— and about living. In a funny scene, after he quits, the director consults a pain specialist. The doctor explains to Mallo that he will undergo withdrawal. But we never observe him doing so.  

The bottom line of the film: work and purpose “cure” addiction! 

Mallo tells another doctor, a surgeon, as he goes under for a life-healing but not dangerous surgery, that his film is in some ways a tragedy, and in others a comedy. 

And, in a sense, heroin, addiction, and life purpose are all linked together in “Glory” as tragedies and comedies.