Pedro Almodóvar ventures inward for Pain and Glory, a diversely palleted observation of an ailing filmmaker’s self-reflections. Sprinkled with a mane of salt and pepper hair, Salvador Mallo (Antonio Banderas in a Best Actor-winning role out of Cannes) hasn’t worked for a long time. A growing list of physical defects and mental illnesses hasn’t made the art undesirable in his eyes, just unobtainable by his standards. When asked early on what he does when he’s in between creative periods, he solemnly replies: “live, I guess.”
But what we quickly learn is that his method of “living” doesn’t entail a whole lot. Quasi-meditating, quasi-sulking in his painting-drenched apartment, Salvador moves through his days incredibly slowly. Part of that reason may be his age; a back surgery has left the man half-crippled with a raw, bulging scar along the vertebrae. But another may be the relentless dread he holds of the future. In his mind, impending events only serve to block his obsessive childhood memories of his mother (played by Penelope Cruz, who looks as young as she did in Volver thirteen years ago). That is, until now.
Praised as a classic, Sabor – Mallo’s lone work mentioned in the film – has been restored by a Madrid cinematheque and is scheduled to screen in a series celebrating movies of the land. Having recently revisited the picture himself for the first time since its premiere three decades ago, Salvador’s eager enough to consider halting his Salinger-type retirement to introduce his breakout feature. His publicist Mercedes (Nora Navas) is skeptical, however, that he’ll actually show, especially since the Q&A would include Alberto (Asier Etxeandia), the heroin-addicted star of the feature who also takes up the better half of a very public falling out with the director.
Regardless, Salva rekindles his friendship with Alberto, a bond the actor considers mended once they have chased the dragon together – a first for the auteur. And through Alberto’s newfound company, Salvador finds that several of his past feelings squirm up to the surface. Each venture with the tinfoil-smoked heroin, which quickly becomes a habit, brings with it another idealized memory, providing an additional form of relief for the pain-riddled man.
With this film, Almodóvar retains his colorful aesthetic as well as the familial motifs he’s explored regularly in the past. After the opening credits unfold with a dazzling collection of hypnotic displays, Salva’s mother, who’s often shown trapped between the family’s poverty and the bountiful hope she has for her son, quickly proves to be the foundation of his entire being.
But if there’s one thing Pain and Glory makes clear, it’s that the artist mines several avenues of inspiration; final products are more often than not informed by those we cherish. And a possible root of Salvador’s creative block is the current absenteeism of relationships in his life: parental, platonic, sexual, or otherwise. He stirs the coals of his former meaningful partnerships, including his mother, who has since passed away, and a muscular painter from the old days, who he helped teach to read and write and (unintentionally) in return, provided him his homoerotic awakening. But one that sticks out is his ill-fated romance with Federico (Leonardo Sbaragila), which Salva formed into a script years ago before abandoning it.
The extent to which this film is autobiographical is not totally clear; Pain and Glory has been billed as the third of a semi-self-based trilogy – which also includes Law of Desire and Bad Education. But whatever the case may be, it’s caught Almodóvar in a pleasantly different, and rewarding light. Rather than incorporating the melodrama many of his most polarizing films have featured, this comparatively low-brow story, rich with bittersweet humor and heart, seems only interested in honoring its form; similar to Federico Fellini’s own filmmaker chronicle 8½ (1963).
The same applies to Banderas, whose rise to fame came in the early ‘90s when smooth-talking, smooth-faced Spanish men became the next “it” figure. Trading in his devilishly macho persona for loafers and eccentricities, he not only delivers the best performance of his career, but a top contender for the best of the year.