It’s hard to fully designate Pedro Almodóvar’s latest film, Pain and Glory, as his most personal because his cinema has always seemed so personal, inspired by some of the director’s own experiences. But in this film, there are intense similarities between Almodóvar and his main protagonist, Salvador Mallo (played by Antonio Banderas). Plus, as Almodóvar states in his press notes accompanying my screening, the house it was filmed in, along with the furniture and clothing, were Almodóvar’s, and some of the dialogue references real exchanges with the director. Even the way Banderas’ hair looks is similar to Almodóvar’s.
Pain—both emotional and physical—is studied closely, serving as the main catalyst for many of Salvador’s choices. Other complex dualities float to the surface: youth and old age, the public and private, health and illness, addiction and sobriety. While the Spanish film director is in good health and spirits these days, he examines the effects physical and mental faculties that are at odds with each other can have on an artist’s creative life, how the person can suffer from a destablized worldview and self-worth.
Salvador is an aging film director whose life as an artist has been placed on a firm hiatus because of his declining health. An animated sequence narrated by Salvador details the physical maladies that have struck his body after years of drug use and extensive travel. The man before the viewer now is a reserved curmudgeon who has abstained from life’s joys because “what’s the point of life if I can’t make movies?” We also learn that Salvador suffers from tinnitus and migraines, as well as depression after his mother passed away four years ago.
A chance encounter with an actress friend puts Salvador back in contact with Alberto Crespo (Asier Etxeandia), an actor with whom he made one of his most successful films, Sabor, but then had a falling out because of Alberto’s heroin use. With an upcoming retrospective screening, Salvador decides to reach out to Alberto to help him present the film. The two reconnect at Alberto’s apartment, where Salvador decides to start using heroin, too.
He drifts off to sleep, experiencing memories of his childhood in idyllic Spain with his hardworking mother, Jacinta (Penélope Cruz). As a boy, Salvador is sharp and a talented singer. After moving with his parents to the caves in Valencia for a better life, Salvador becomes a tutor for an illiterate teenaged boy named Eduardo in exchange for house repairs. One day, while washing himself off after installing tiles in their home, a naked Eduardo calls out to Salvador to bring him a towel. Upon seeing Eduardo in the buff, Salvador promptly faints in shock.
While Salvador chases the dragon during one of their hangouts, Alberto uncovers on Salvador’s computer a manuscript detailing his addiction memories, his love for cinema, and his past romance with another young man. Utterly entranced by the text, Alberto begs Salvador to turn it into a play, but Salvador balks. Eventually, Salvador submits, but only under the condition that Alberto take authorship because it’s too personal to Salvador. During its initial run, the old flame mentioned in the text attends a performance and realizes Salvador is the actual author. He seeks out Salvador, and their reunion helps Salvador to break out of his self-destructive melancholia.
Much of the greatness of this film is owed to Banderas’ performance. Now decades older than the Spanish heartthrob he was marketed to be in mainstream American cinema, Banderas has shed most of that sex appeal to become the hermit-like Salvador. He retains a glint in his eyes that is extremely expressive of physical pain and vulnerability (while he was the picture of health making the movie, Banderas had suffered a heart attack before the film was written), yet there’s also a spark that proves his mischievous, quirky side is still alive.
Cruz imbues the young Jacinta with wonderful resolve and a spitfire energy, but Almodóvar regular Julieta Serrano, who plays Jacinta at the end of her life, offers the most touching and heartbreaking scene in the film, providing a powerful presence the viewer won’t soon forget. Both Salvador and Jacinta put their most honest revelations on the table, as well as their regrets and uncomfortable truths, one of which helps to explain the trauma behind Salvador’s inability to get over his mother’s death.
While pain is extremely prescient, glory is also felt throughout, through humor, friendship and love. Brought to life with vibrant cinematography and a surreal blend of the past and present, Almodóvar threads all these elements together with beauty and mastery.
Pain and Glory was written and directed by Pedro Almodóvar; and stars Antonio Banderas, Asier Etxeandia and Leonardo Sbaraglia.
Aimee Murillo is calendar editor and frequently covers film and previously contributed to the OCW’s long-running fashion column, Trendzilla. Don’t ask her what her favorite movie is unless you want to hear her lengthy defense of Showgirls.