‘Pain and Glory’ Is Pedro Almodóvar’s Most Personal Work of Self-Reflection

The great Pedro Almodóvar now joins the ranks of masterful filmmakers who have used their medium to reflect on themselves. “Pain and Glory” is an amalgam of original writing and Almodóvar’s own personality. Through its characters we can see the journey that formed the artist. One of Almodóvar’s longest collaborators, Antonio Banderas, plays a persona obviously based on the director but without the slightest hint of imitation. He is a new creation meant to provide an almost poetic commentary on Almodóvar’s own career.

Banderas plays Salvador Mallo, a greying and respected filmmaker now feeling past his prime. A revival screening is being planned for one of his most famous works and Mallo finds himself thinking back into the past, to his early childhood with his mother Jacinta (Penélope Cruz). Back into Mallo’s life drops in Alberto Crespo (Asier Etxeandia), who was once one of Mallo’s leading men but the two had a falling out over the actor’s drug use on set. Yet it is Crespo who now turns Mallo onto the dark bliss of heroin. Crespo also searches through Mallo’s computer and finds a stunning monologue about his youth and a love affair with an Argentine. Crespo begs the auteur to let him stage the writing as a one man play. At first Mallo hesitates, but then he relents and the experience takes him further into the past.

There is a simple beauty to “Pain and Glory.” Unlike some of Almodóvar’s most famous films there is no archaic, exceedingly melodramatic plot. It would be easy to compare this movie to famous cinematic autobiographies like Fellini’s “Amarcord” or “8 ½.” Mallo is indeed a kind of cinematic ghost of Almodóvar, not literally the director but a shadow on film. Banderas’s hair is made into the iconic, graying mass and the character is gay, even his clothing has the exact same color scheme you can find in any magazine clip of Almodóvar. The screenplay functions as an amalgam of various elements in the filmmakers’ life, reimagined as a fresh drama. Like the reflective writer in “The Great Beauty,” Mallo is at middle age looking back. There are ethereal childhood scenes of a young Salvador (Asier Flores) daydreaming near a river where Jacinta does the laundry, singing a Spanish folk song with local women who make saucy chatter. The roots form much of the artist and Salvador’s family lives in perpetual poverty, his mother shocked when her husband reveals he’s found them a cavern to live in. But it is Salvador’s capacity to fantasize, to turn any situation into a story that hints at the storyteller to come. Even while spending the night at a train station with Jacinta, Salvador gazes at movie stars staring at him from a magazine.

Almodóvar’s work has always gripped and been renowned due to its rich use of suspense and plotting, in movies like “Live Flesh,” “All About My Mother” and “Talk To Her,” identities can suddenly switch and feverish melodrama explodes framed by sumptuous color. Even in something more macabre like “The Skin I Live In,” where a vengeful surgeon (played by Banderas) turns a man into a woman against their will, what absorbs is Almodóvar’s use of language and the sense that we can’t believe everything we see. “Pain and Glory” is about how a creator of those films must live behind the scenes, away from the sets and red carpets. Mallo is surrounded by colleagues, but lives alone, the return of Crespo breathes new life into him and he begins writing a screenplay again. What it could be about is hinted in the flashbacks with scenes of sensuous subtext, as when a young Salvador watches a neighbor he’s teaching how to read wash himself. In the moments where he’s giving reading lessons and literally directs his older pupil on how to properly write a letter, the young Salvador foreshadows his later life. Almodovar captures this with a subtly mastered by someone used to bold strokes in his work.

For Antonio Banderas this could almost be a tender tribute to a filmmaker that brought him to the world’s attention. It was Almodóvar who starred Banderas in early notable films like “Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!” and the same can be said about Penelope Cruz, who also starred in multiple Almodóvar hits before coming to the United States. Banderas delivers one of his greatest performances in “Pain and Glory,” evoking an artist slightly weighed down by life. He’s not bitter, just pondering one’s relationships after all the early glitz has died down. When his monologue becomes a hit an old lover will appear at his door, and the scene that ensues in Mallo’s living room has the quiet tension of an overdue reunion. Mallo and his guest share words and thoughts, later a kiss, with the maturity of two adults who had a powerful experience but only have the memories left. Banderas, known to Americans primarily for his action roles, demonstrates the great depths he is capable of. Even Almodóvar’s longtime cinematographer, José Luis Alcaine, subdues the color palette, going for calm, cool colors as opposed to the Douglas Sirk-style richness of previous movies. 

Watching “Pain and Glory” can feel like spending the day with Almodóvar’s inner thoughts as opposed to following a structured plotline. Salvador Mallo becomes a guide through not a full autobiography of the director, but instead through a dramatic vision of what makes him tick. It’s the equivalent of a novelist who writes fiction which is a mask for something more personal they would like to convey. Here Almodóvar isn’t focusing on generating suspense, he does something more special and that is he truly shares and not just entertains. 

Pain and Glory” opens Oct. 4 in New York and Los Angeles with an expansion to follow.