Almodóvar pulls off a nice trick with this movie, moving his protagonist and us from despair to a new lease on life with an ease that feels magical.
After more than 10 years of creating masterpieces (or near masterpieces) beginning with All About My Mother in 1999, Pedro Almodóvar retreated from the well from where he drew inspiration for films such as Talk to Her (2002), Bad Education (2004) and Volver (2006) and returned to his roots. Though his 2013 romp I’m So Excited drew decidedly mixed reviews, it paid homage to the raunchy comedies, such as Pepi, Luci, Bom, that kickstarted his career during la movida madrileña, a movement that took place between the death of dictator Francisco Franco and the emergence of AIDS that saw the Spanish people burst out of the tomb created by their caudillo and engage in a fantastic bacchanalia of freedom of expression. Almodóvar followed this comedy with Julieta, his 2016 drama based on a trio of short stories by Alice Munro. A minor entry in the director’s body of work who usually wrote his own screenplays, some fans worried that Julieta signaled that Almodóvar’s reign as a master filmmaker had come to an end.
Almodóvar returns to form with Pain and Glory, a gentle and quiet film that draws on the director’s own life for inspiration. Antonio Banderas stars as Salvador Mallo, a once distinguished director who has fallen on hard times. He spends his days entombed in his Madrid apartment, suffering from an array of ailments such as migraine, back pain and asthma. From time to time he chokes when eating or drinking. We come to Salvador as he receives notice that a film he directed from the ‘80s, Sabor, is being screened in retrospective, the first in a series of events that begins Salvador’s journey to reclaim his life.
In Pain and Glory Almodóvar is taking stock of his life as a director and the events that led him down that path. Without creating art, Salvador has more or less ceased to exist. Once he receives an invite to the screening, the director reaches out to Alberto (Asier Etxeandia), his leading man with whom he has had a falling out. Though decades have passed since the men last spoke, old feelings (both good and bad) are reignited. However, Alberto is addicted to heroin and before long, Salvador is also using to dull all his various aches and pains.
Almodóvar, who turned 70 this year, paints Pain and Glory with the same bright colors and interesting characters that have long defined his work, but this newest film is sadly wistful, lacking much of the melodrama and humor the Spanish director is best known for employing. Salvador is a man who has lost his taste for life, jaded into living in an apartment that a friend compares to a museum. He seems lost without any idea how to find his way back.
Banderas, an Almodóvar mainstay, gives an introspective career-best performance. Appearing grizzled and vulnerable, Salvador re-examines his life, even arguing at one point with his elderly mother about the use of “autofiction” in his scripts. In many ways, Almodóvar is auto-critiquing himself, especially in the sequences when we see the formation of young Salvador (Asier Flores). Like Almodóvar, Salvador is sent to the seminary to become a priest against his will. And while Almodóvar’s mother made a living writing letters for the illiterate, the director moves that skill to his young protagonist here while his mother (Penélope Cruz) looks on. Meanwhile, Banderas is made to look like the director with his frosted beard and blown-out haircut.
Not everything is doom and gloom in Pain and Glory, even when it seems that Salvador will succumb to his newfound heroin addiction. Almodóvar pulls off a nice trick with this movie, moving his protagonist and us from despair to a new lease on life with an ease that feels magical. Late in the film, Salvador’s mother reveals that she has always considered him a bad son for refusing to take her in after his father died. Why should he? He was young, gay and living out his dreams in that all-too-brief moment of history where freedom finally came calling for Spain. Salvador has regrets, but he owns them. There is no high drama here really, just a rebirth of sorts. And that’s plenty.