Over his four-decade-spanning career, Pedro Almodóvar’s name has become synonymous with irreverence; with a disdain for convention, rules, and in his latest film, for the line between reality and cinema. Pain and Glory — the 21st feature and arguably most personal work from the Spanish auteur — is not an autobiography. Rather, as the film’s aging, fictional director Salvador Mallo (Antonio Banderas) would put it, the film is a work of “auto-fiction.” Something like the truth: a deftly meta account of a creative mind confronting the fault line between mortality and artistic impulse.
The film follows Mallo as he enters the final stretch of middle age. He’s paralyzed in more ways than one; host to a laundry list of ailments, least of all an unshakable sense of creative stagnancy. He is beginning to accept that he may never make another film, and one suspects that possibility is doing him as much harm as any of his other illnesses. And so, Salvador lives in a kind of purgatory, moving slowly through an apartment that feels more like a museum than a home. Then, to his surprise, a cinematheque programmer asks him to introduce a screening of his now-cult classic film Sabor. Salvador obliges, and in the planning of the event, he reunites with the film’s star, Alberto (Asier Etxeandia). Alberto, a longtime drug-user, casually persuades Salvador to chase the dragon and self-medicate with heroin. His pain eased, Salvador disappears behind heavy lids into the past, into formative memories of his mother, his village, and his early infatuation with cinema. Finally, fatefully, these reunions (remembered or otherwise) lead to a chance meeting with a former lover (Leonardo Sbaraglia), whose own drug addiction caused him and Salvador to part ways many years ago. Their reunion is the heart of the film, and a boundlessly sweet and sorrowful reminder that art is one of the few professions where inspiration and pain can, and often do, coexist.
Pain and Glory is a tender and often obsessive portrait of a filmmaker taking stock of the agonies and ecstasies of his life and the role art has played in both. Those familiar with the director will feel the connective tissue between the prolific Spanish filmmaker and Banderas’ ailing, prickly-haired Salvador. Likewise, the presence of frequent Almodóvar collaborators, behind and in front of the camera, supplies Pain and Glory’s memoir-fiction with an undeniable sense of resonance that blurs the line between truth and artifice, Salvador and Almodóvar, and reality and cinema. It is a blissfully surreal watch, and as loose as the facts may be, nothing ever comes across as dishonest.
Banderas’ magnificent performance as Salvador rightfully won him Best Actor earlier this year at Cannes. The reward is well-deserved as Banderas puts in career-best work here and the evident trust he and Almodóvar share pays off in spades. Banderas’ performance never feels like an impersonation, and Salvador very much feels like a fully realized, emotionally independent character in his own right. Banderas endows Salvador with the quiet frustration and resign of a man who doesn’t think he can be saved, who shuts himself in, refuses doctors, and prefers numbness over risk. His egomania and self-effacement are more mesmerizing than melodramatic. Instead, theatrics are eschewed for something more heartbreaking and lived-in leaving an existential meltdown with only one casualty.
Autobiographical love letters to cinema are often wont to slip into self-aggrandizement and cloyingly hollow sentiments of “the power of art.” There’s a long tradition of filmmakers telling stories to come to terms with their own past and their own mortality. Thankfully, Pain and Glory’s is more in line with the likes of Fellini’s 8 ½ or Fosse’s All That Jazz. Its restraint and often painful frankness keep things grounded. In this respect, Pain and Glory not only rounds out Almodóvar’s unplanned triptych on male filmmakers (a trilogy preceded by Law of Desire and Bad Education) but far and away exceeds them.
That said, Almodóvar fans seeking the director’s characteristic bombast will come up short. While there are aesthetic trademarks aplenty, and more than a few thematic touchstones (least of all the complex portrait of Salvador’s mother, played by a radiant Penélope Cruz), Pain and Glory is comparatively muted. The film even treats Salvador’s foray into heroin with a steady hand and something more akin to concern than judgment. But, for a heart film, the quietness feels necessary for the introspective trick Pain and Glory is trying to pull. Speaking of which, the final shot of the film is a reveal I dare not spoil. Suffice to say, it is a perfect, retroactively inevitable punctuation mark for both Salvador and his creators.
The Spanish Academy has selected Pain and Glory as its submission for the international feature film at this year’s Academy Awards. Pain and Glory marks Almodóvar’s record-setting seventh submission to the Academy from Spain. And, with many calling Pain and Glory Almodóvar’s best since Volver, and with the international category broadened to 10 contenders, it would be baffling if Almodóvar failed to secure a nomination.
Pain and Glory is a supremely generous film; a vibrant, warm, and sensitive story that succeeds where other “films about filmmaking” have failed. Admirers of Almodóvar will be treated to a familiar if more mature return to form. And for those looking for an entry-point into Almodóvar’s corpus: this is a very good place to start.
Sony Picture Classics will be releasing Pain and Glory stateside on October 4th.