In Pedro Almodóvar’s latest film, Pain And Glory, a filmmaker reflects upon his life while languishing in a creative stupor brought on by agonising health problems. There are a lot of films made by filmmakers, about filmmakers, but Almodóvar’s latest feels self-reflective without necessarily being autobiographical.
Racked with chronic pain, ageing writer-director Salvador Mallo (Antonio Banderas) has become a recluse, living alone with his art collection and depending on painkillers to stave off backaches and migraines. When one of his most celebrated films, Sabor, is restored for a re-release, he appeals to its heroin-smoking star, Alberto Crespo (Asier Etxeandia), to help him introduce a screening and Q&A session.
What follows is divided between present-day Madrid, where Salvador reconciles with Alberto after trying heroin for the first time, and potentially drug-fuelled flashbacks to the director’s childhood in Paterna, where his mother Jacinta (Penélope Cruz) slaves to try and help her bright young son get ahead. Perhaps unsurprisingly, it transpires that only art can connect these two distant periods.
Close to the beginning of the film, Salvador talks to an acquaintance about how he has revisited Sabor for the first time since its premiere and feels it has grown in stature in the 32 years since he first made it. She responds that the movie has stayed the same, and it’s his eyes that have changed. This exchange that cuts right to the heart of Pain And Glory, even if the film takes a little more time arriving at the crux of it.
Shortly after this exchange, we’re given a striking animated sequence that tells us how Salvador was a bright kid who only really learned about the world through cinema and later by travelling to promote his films. What’s more, he only really learned about his body as its limitations became apparent over time. This sequence is just one way in which the film dramatises the transporting effects of creativity, not only in cinema but in art and theatre, too.
While Salvador’s newfound drug habit becomes a salve for the physical pain, the Pain of the title is evidently more emotional. However, for the first half of the film, he is paralysed by denial and regret more than anything else. At one point, he begrudgingly hands one of his more recent, unproduced written pieces over to Alberto so that he can perform it as a one-man show. Even though it’s an intensely personal confessional monologue, Salvador refuses credit, telling him: “I do not want this related to me.”
This action starts a chain of events that powers the film into its more probing second half. There are clear autobiographical elements in the character’s early life (the name “Salvador Mallo” is close to being an anagram of Almodóvar), but it’s not an overtly personal film so much as a self-portrait, and it’s similarly subject to adaptation and interpretation.
Almodóvar is the master craftsman here, but ultimately, the film is carried high on Banderas’ shoulders. Even if you already know him outside of his more comic Hollywood work, he’s on stunning dramatic form here as the frazzled artist. Banderas deservingly won the Best Actor award at this year’s Cannes Film Festival for his career-topping turn as Salvador, and if the film carries on its momentum, we won’t be surprised to see similar nods throughout awards season.
Asier Flores plays the younger Salvador in a series of utterly cinematic flashbacks, which also give Cruz an arresting supporting role. To whatever extent Jacinta is based on the director’s own mother, she makes a laudable screen mum, whose portrayal links to her older counterpart (played by Almodóvar’s frequent collaborator Julieta Serrano) in unforeseen ways later on in the film.
By presenting these memories throughout the running time, Almodóvar foregoes the unreliable narrator trope and creates a truly immersive character study. If there are any nits to pick, it’s that the zippy first movement is delineated from the more intricate second section a little too starkly, leaving a more noticeably baggy spell after the gear change. But even while toying with cinematic narrative structures, it’s never arch or insincere in its study of the stories we create for ourselves.
As with many of the director’s films, your understanding of the protagonist deepens as the running time goes on, right up to the jaw-dropping final shot, which lends new meaning to everything you’ve just seen. While Pain And Glory is absolutely a film of two halves, and there’s an awful lot of Pain before you get a glimpse of Glory, those two halves are united by its colourful and contemplative depiction of memory.
Pain And Glory is in UK cinemas from 23 August.