Across three-decades of filmmaking, Pedro Almodóvar has become a clear auteur, his distinctive romantic whimsy carries such weight that the tagline “a film by Almodóvar” conveys more brand than vision. The filmmaker’s new film, Pain and Glory, is his best and most personal film in years and brings him back to mortal terrain. A grounded melancholic rumination on aging and artistic intent steeped in some of the aging director’s own experiences. Pain and Glory stars an exceptionally world-weary Antonio Banderas, his faced coated in a salt-and-pepper stubble beard and topped with an unruly spiky mop of a hair due, as an acclaimed director wrestling with his past and present. The actor looks so much like his long-time collaborator that Pain and Glory may well be deemed “a film about Almodóvar.” And yet the filmmaker has claimed much of Pain and Glory has been fictionalized including the details of the character’s upbringing, a drug-fueled plot line and the romantic history that the character wrestles with throughout this poignant little movie.
But no matter that, Pain and Glory has the emotional resonance of an artist coming to terms with the intimate nature of his work, and in the pantheon of the films-about-filmmaking or the creative process genre, it’s a model example of the form — nearly a bittersweet 8 1/2 centered on the quest of an artist in search of his own tale. Still, you don’t call him Pedro: Banderas is playing Salvador Mallo, a veteran Spanish filmmaker who was contended with a lifetime of discomfort. As he explains in an early voiceover set to lively medical animations (the only time where the movie veers to overindulging), the poor middle-aged figure suffers from ailments of all kinds: muscle aches, joint pains, spinal problems, tinnitus, anxiety and depression. Yet all of these struggles have drove his passionate artistry, at least until a recent dry spell, which leads him to contemplate his past. Early on, the only chapter of Salvador’s life he seems intent on revisiting is one of his early films called “Sabor” that led him to have a falling out with leading man Alberto Crespo (Asier Exeandia) with whom he had creative differences with. But when a local theater invites him to participate in a Q&A for a repertory screening of “Sabor,” Salvador decides to track down Alberto and invite him along. But it’s during the pair’s reunion that Salvador also decides to give heroin a try.
Before long, Salvador is trying heroin all the time: buying it on the street, whipping it out whenever his pain kicks in, and using it to contemplate another difficult chapter from his earlier life. While Salvador’s on-and-off relationship with Alberto revisits their old wounds with some humor, Alberto grows curious by the possibility of a new Salvador Mallo project after all these years, and whether it could provide a creative outlet for the struggling actor as well. The movie often hovers in the intrigue of Salvador’s psychological duress, and traces it back to his childhood with flashbacks mixed throughout the plot. It’s here where we see a young Salvador (Asier Flores) experiencing a peculiar childhood in a village of Valencia in the 1960s, where his frugal father sets up the family home in a cramped white cave along with other working-class migrants. His mother (a delicate Penelope Cruz) provides gentle guidance for her gifted son, watching in awe as his literary skills take shape — and later cringing when he turns against the church. These sequences only reveal their function with time, building to a brilliant final reveal in the movie’s closing moments. Until then, they provide more details to the plot than any voiceover could, explaining the evolution of Salvador’s sexuality and the shadow of religious guilt that still hangs over him in the present.
Overall, it’s a curious package of pathos that could have easily lost its way, but Almodóvar keeps the narrative humming along. As Salvador wrestles with his past and whether he can confront it in a new work is the question of whether he has the capacity to deliver new work at all. “Without filming, my life is meaningless,” he says at one point, and its the looming question if he can get out of this funk that marinates through the film. But all of it is seemingly driven by Banderas’ lovely, nuanced turn and the slow-burn exposition, as the emotional turmoil sets in. Almodóvar has made other films about film directors before, but those came at livelier eras in this rock star filmmaker’s career. More recently, he has stumbled on attempts at different extremes, in the likes of Julieta and the dopey, ill-conceived romp I’m So Excited!, both somewhat coming and going. This time, Almodóvar has found the ideal medium level, with a gorgeous, atmospheric character study of an aging, reminiscing master. Aided by Alberto Iglesias’ beautiful score and cinematographer José Luis Alcaine’s colorful visions of life, Pain and Glory roots its small-scale story in a ravishing atmosphere that suggests a filmmaker keen on inviting his audience in. (As seen in Salvador’s apartment, which in the film, is a exact replica of Almodóvar’s.)
Pain and Glory dispenses with its more playful scenes within the first act, and settles into a more pensive mood as it winds down. And that’s when it turns into truly masterful territory, as a gorgeous passage of the film follows Salvador and his long-lost flame Federico (Leonardo Sbaraglia) as they reconnect at Salvador’s apartment for a talky, wistful confrontation that has more in common with Richard Linklater’s Before trilogy than anything in Almodóvar’s filmography. At the same time, it’s the profound philosophical work about the stakes of emotional conflict that’s in tune with every Almodóvar film before it. Tonally, the movie feels closer to the ghostly sense of mystery and wonder associated with the past, but with it applied in a more introspective fashion. It may or may not all draw from the truth, but it certainly comes across as a fascinating autobiographical gesture that defines the roots of his art through many stages. And, to be honest, who cares what really happened? Taking into consideration the filmography leading up to it, the title of Pain and Glory seemingly amounts to a mission statement all its own. With Pain and Glory Pedro Almodóvar has delivered a film of sensual fluidity, each moment ebbing and flowing through truthful vulnerability and ineffable tenderness.