In his latest and most personal film, Pedro Almodóvar contemplates aging, regret, the need to make films, and life as a gay man in Spain.
Pedro Almodóvar, Spain’s great director, was once a rebel and provocateur. Now he’s practically an institution, but that doesn’t mean that he avoids controversy. His new feature film, the 22nd of his career, is kind of a “summing up” of his personal and artistic legacy. It’s called Pain and Glory, and even though Almodóvar is 70 years old, this brilliant, spirited film is no evidence of exhaustion. However, his alter ego in the movie, a director played by Antonio Banderas, seems to be suffering from just that.
Banderas plays Salvador Mallo, a famous screenwriter and director who has not made a new film for many years. Mallo himself tells us in voice-over that his body has become so ravaged with pain that he can no longer concentrate enough to work. He recently had spinal surgery, but his severe back pain persists, along with migraine headaches and unexplained choking fits.
Alternating with sequences taking place in the present, we see flashbacks to his childhood in the 1960s, with his beloved mother, played by Penelope Cruz, and his father, who struggles to support them. Back in the present, Mallo gets an invitation to introduce and answer questions at a film festival screening of one of his most important films. He decides to ask Alberto Crespo, the lead actor in that film, played by Asier Etxeandia, to help him at the event. Trouble is, they haven’t spoken in thirty years: Alberto still has a resentment about the way he was treated while making that picture.
Thus begins an inward journey in which Almodóvar playfully examines the struggles of filmmaking, including a funny take-off on the phenomenon of Q&A sessions at film festivals. But this journey ends up involving the perils of addiction—Alberto has a heroin habit that Salvador always disapproved of, but now when they meet, and when Crespo takes a break to smoke some heroin off of some tin foil, Mallo asks if he can share it. When he nods off under the strong influence of the heroin, his childhood memories become more vivid. But a negative consequence is that Mallo ends up getting hooked on the stuff. The link between addiction and creativity is a potent theme for Almodóvar, and in this case it also triggers Mallo’s memory, from the 1980s, of a former lover named Federico, who was also a heroin user, and whose struggle with addiction plunged Mallo into grief that he could only soothe by making films.
Pain and Glory flows with a lithe and sinuous visual rhythm, as Almodóvar, reflected through the fine performance by Antonio Banderas, contemplates aging, regret, the endless artistic quest, and crucially, life as a gay man in Spain. This involves not only Federico, but an earlier object of desire from his childhood, a man in his parents’ village whom he taught to read.
The reliable supporting cast includes, besides the marvelous Penelope Cruz, Julieta Serrano playing Mallo’s mother as an old woman, and Cecila Roth as his loyal assistant. Most impressive, besides Banderas, is Asier Etxeandia as Alberto, delightful as the self-centered actor who is always butting heads with his old director, his enemy and his friend. You might say that the movie shows Almodóvar in a mellow and reflective mood, which is true, but his depiction of the difficult realities of life is as wise and uncompromising as ever. Pain and Glory is a glorious achievement.