There’s a scene in Pedro Almodóvar’s latest film, Pain and Glory, in which the 60ish protagonist, Salvador Mallo, instructs an actor not to get too sentimental when he delivers a deeply personal monologue that Mallo wrote – that it would be more effective for the audience to see him fighting back tears, rather than shedding them. The actor brags that he can do melodrama better than anyone, but the screenwriter/director says that, late in his career, he’s done with melodrama.
That moment in a nutshell encapsulates what’s going on here with Almodóvar’s oeuvre, and it explains why many critics are calling Pain and Glory the Spanish auteur’s crowning semiautobiographical work, comparing it to Fellini’s 8 ½. The film is also being lauded, justly, as a career high for Antonio Banderas, who portrays Salvador with exactly the sort of nuance and restraint for which the actor is normally not noted (see his arm-waving performance as Ramón Fonseca in The Laundromat, recently reviewed in these pages, by way of contrast). Banderas took the Best Actor prize at Cannes for this role.
Almodóvar’s meteoric rise to fame in the 1980s was fueled largely by the giddy cultural renaissance that followed the demise of Francisco Franco, known as La Movida Madrileña, and characterized by a willingness to take on subject matter previously regarded as shocking in his country. The director depicted women in revolt against machismo, unapologetic gay and trans characters, BD/SM themes, corruption and sexual abuse within the Catholic Church. He assimilated the transgressive inspiration of John Waters, along with the rest of the history of cinema. Shock value, camp, parody and melodrama were all calling cards of Almodóvar’s early career. Sometimes the results were brilliant; sometimes they fell flat.
Over time, the director’s approach calmed down somewhat, in terms of narrative and characterization. His Pop Art visual palette remained consistent, however, with the photography, set and costume design relying on bold primary colors to seize the eye and not let go. Pain and Glory is mesmerizing on more than the cinematographic level, however: It leads us through a story that remains compelling even when some of its threads lead nowhere. Characters appear, seem briefly important, drop out again…and yet the audience is kept hanging on, yearning to know if Salvador is going to make it through the challenges of his maturity.
Primary among those challenges are literal physical and psychic pain. We learn early in the film, through a lively animated sequence, that Salvador’s life has been plagued with a list of ailments that sound like the obsessions of a hypochondriac, from asthma to migraines to depression to every imaginable orthopedic problem – but they’re real. We first see him immersed in a swimming pool, a long scar down his back denoting the extent of his recent spinal fusion surgery. With clenched posture and tense facial expressions every time the character stands or sits, Banderas clearly conveys the daily reality that has made this driven, once-highly-successful artist lose his mojo. Salvador’s struggle to get it back is the meat of this story; but it takes many forays into the lessons of the past to rekindle the flame of creation.
At the outset, the unhappily retired director has just gotten word of an offer to give a talkback following a screening of a freshly remastered print of one of his early breakthrough films, now lauded as a classic. The hitch: The lead actor, Alberto Crespo (Asier Etxeandia), has to be there too, and the two haven’t spoken in more than 30 years because Salvador hated the heaviness with which the junkie actor had embodied what was supposed to be a manic, comic role. In retrospect, the director can see the brilliance of Alberto’s performance, and he steels himself to reach out and try to make amends.
At Alberto’s house, on a whim, Salvador asks to try heroin for the first time. Not only does it ease his constant pain, but it also triggers sublime flights of memory from his childhood: the hard-to-please mother (Penelope Cruz) whom he adored, the whitewashed cave in the Valencian town of Paterna where they lived, the hunky handyman (César Vicente) who triggered his first pangs of desire. The film later follows up on these themes as they played out in the more recent past, with Salvador’s futile efforts to ease the dying days of his elderly mother (Julieta Serrano) the key, perhaps, to his sense of failure.
But the reunion with his former filmmaking colleague – inspired, in all likelihood, by the long falling-out between Almodóvar and Banderas, whose own career got a major boost from his appearances in several of the director’s early works – leads to another powerful reckoning with the past. Browsing Salvador’s laptop while the director is zoned out on caballo, Alberto finds a confessional film treatment that he immediately wants to perform as a staged monologue. The director agrees to let him use it, so long as his own name is not attached, because it’s all about his lost love Federico (Leonardo Sbaraglia), whom Salvador tried to save from addiction long ago. Coincidence brings Federico to Alberto’s performance; he recognizes himself in the story and seeks out Salvador. There is, apparently, such a thing as life after heroin.
The recurring theme of addiction makes Pain and Glory sound darker and direr in tone than it ultimately is. There’s plenty of humor to be found here, alongside genuine pathos that never descends into bathos. Like Salvador, Almodóvar, late in life, has found in himself a discipline lacking in his early works that can coexist nicely alongside an irreverent outlook on culture, past and present. Even if he made no more movies after this one, Pain and Glory would serve as a transcendent capstone to an always-provocative cinematic career. Recommended.