Across 30-plus years of filmmaking, Pedro Almodóvar has accrued the auteurist equivalence of a god, and his distinctive romantic whimsy carries such weight that the tagline “a film by Almodóvar” conveys more brand than vision. “Pain and Glory,” the filmmaker’s best and most personal movie in years, brings him back to mortal terrain. A grounded melancholic rumination on aging and artistic intent steeped in the aging director’s own experiences, it may be the closest Almodóvar comes to crafting a memoir in the medium he knows best.
At least, it looks that way on the surface. “Pain and Glory” stars an exceptionally world-weary Antonio Banderas, his face caked in salt-and-pepper stubble and framed by an unruly mop of hair, 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 about “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.
No matter. “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 genre, it’s a paragon of the form — a bittersweet “8 1/2” centered on the quest of an artist in search of his own tale. Still, don’t call him Pedro: Banderas plays Salvador Mallo, a veteran Spanish filmmaker who has contended with a lifetime of discomfort. As he explains in an early voiceover set to lively medical animations (the one time the movie veers into overindulgence), the poor middle-aged figure suffers from ailments of all kinds: muscle aches, joint pains, tinnitus, anxiety, and depression. Yet all of these struggles have catalyzed his passionate artistry, at least until a recent dry spell, which leads him to contemplate his past.
At first, the only chapter of Salvador’s life he seems intent on revisiting is a sultry drama called “Sabor” (“Taste”) that led him to have a falling out with leading man Alberto Crespo (a slovenly and funny Asier Etxeandia) over the actor’s heroin addiction. But when a local theater invites Salvador to participate in a Q&A for a repertory screening of “Sabor,” he decides to track down Alberto and invite him to come along. He finds the man eking out a living in theater, and still “chasing the dragon” to keep his creative juices flowing (or at least his addiction). On a whim — and for reasons only revealed with time — Salvador asks for a hit, and suddenly this soft-spoken, middle-aged artist is strung out on heavy drugs for the first time in his life.
Soon, 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 earlier in his life, when an early romance fell apart after his partner became an addict. While Salvador’s on-again-off-again relationship with Alberto revisits their old wounds with cringe-inducing 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.
But if “Pain and Glory” is meta to a fault, it never goes full-on “Adaptation.” Instead, the movie hovers in the intrigue of Salvador’s psychological duress, and traces it back to his childhood with wondrous flashbacks interspersed throughout the plot. It’s here that young Salvador experiences a peculiar childhood in the parochial 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 gentle Penélope Cruz, because every good Almodóvar movie needs her somewhere) provides gentle guidance for her gifted son, watching in awe as his bookish demeanor and 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 minutiae 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.
It’s a curious package of pathos and navel-gazing that could easily devolve into self-indulgence if Almodóvar didn’t keep the narrative humming along. At stake 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 produce new work at all. “Without filming, my life is meaningless,” he says at one point, and the suspense of the movie stems from whether he gives into that dark void.
Driven by Banderas’ lovely, nuanced turn and the slow-burn exposition, it’s impossible not to feel the emotional turmoil on both sides of the camera. Almodóvar has made two other movies about film directors over the years, 1987’s “Law of Desire” and 2004’s “Bad Education,” but those came at livelier eras in this rock star filmmaker’s career. More recently, he has stumbled on attempts at different extremes: The meandering Alice Munro adaptation “Julieta” felt like the work of a director struggling to restrain his tendencies, and it followed the dopey, ill-conceived romp “I’m So Excited!”, which even Almodóvar fans had trouble defending much. This time, Almodóvar has found the ideal happy medium, with a gorgeous, atmospheric character study that doesn’t overstate the emotions it accrues with time. Aided by Almodóvar staple Alberto Iglesias’ wondrous score and cinematographer José Luis Alcaine’s colorful visions of city life, “Pain and Glory” roots its small-scale story in a lush atmosphere that suggests a filmmaker keen on inviting his audience in. (Notably, Salvador’s roomy apartment is in fact Almodóvar’s real-life home.)
“Pain and Glory” dispenses with its big, playful scenes within the first act, and settles into a more pensive mood as it winds down. That’s when it veers into truly masterful territory, as Salvador’s long-lost flame Federico (Leonardo Sbaraglia) resurfaces at Salvador’s apartment for a talky, wistful confrontation that has more in common with Richard Linklater’s “Before” trilogy (or perhaps Andrew Haigh’s “Weekend”) than anything in Almodóvar’s oeuvre. At the same time, it’s a profound philosophical work about the stakes of emotional conflict in tune with the films by Almodóvar preceding it.
In another moment of meta-commentary, someone asks Salvador if his next project is a drama or a comedy. “You never know,” he says, but the movie’s absorbing commitment to understatement suggests Almodóvar knows exactly what he’s doing. Tonally, the movie hews closer to the ghostly sense of mystery and wonder associated with the past last explored in “Volver” 15 years ago, but applied in 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 who cares what really happened? Taking into consideration the filmography leading up to it, the title of “Pain and Glory” amounts to a mission statement.
“Pain and Glory” premiered at the 2019 Cannes Film Festival in Competition. Sony Pictures Classics will release it theatrically on October 4, 2019.
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