The 21st film from Spanish maestro Pedro Almodóvar follows an ageing film director played by Antonio Banderas; decked out with bright clothes and a beard, it quickly becomes apparent that Banderas’s Salvador Mallo is standing in for Almodóvar himself – to some extent, at least. Hugely successful for films made earlier in his career, Salvador has since withdrawn from his work and public life in general. He now lives alone in Madrid, depressed and tormented by various physical ailments.
In the hands of a less capable director, the film-about-struggling-filmmaker formula is always at severe risk of being overindulgent and self-congratulatory, or else unbearably mopey. Almodóvar, however, is no stranger to autobiographical filmmaking – Pain & Glory is not so much a personal film for the director as it is an even more personal film than usual. In his hands, the results are wonderful.
A new restoration of one of Salvador’s early films gives the director a chance to meet with its lead actor Alberto (Asier Etxeandia); the pair haven’t spoken in three decades following a widely publicised falling out. Snooping through Salvador’s computer, Alberto discovers ‘Addiction’, a confessional manuscript recounting a passionate romance wrecked by his lover’s heroin dependency. Alberto begs Salvador to let him perform ‘Addiction’ as a monologue, convinced it will rejuvenate their careers.
Meanwhile, Salvador’s own use of heroin becomes the primary catalyst for memories of his impoverished upbringing in rural Spain: hearing his mother (Penélope Cruz) sing as she washes clothes in a river; becoming the star of a seminary choir; experiencing first desire as he glimpses a young plasterer bathing naked. Though the whole film is delicately and lovingly constructed, you get the sense that these are the scenes Almodóvar has poured his heart into.
Almodóvar’s direction – especially his direction of actors – is reliably excellent. His regular collaborators offer key contributions: Banderas’ honest performance is one of his best; Antxón Gómez’s colourful production design is lent further warmth by cinematographer José Luis Alcaine; and a sparse score by composer Alberto Iglesias perfectly evokes Salvador’s loneliness. A particular treat is an animated scene by Juan Gatti, illustrating the innumerable ailments suffered by Salvador with vibrant visual wit.
Pain & Glory is a more restrained, more ruminative film than those that defined Almodóvar’s early career, playing up the melancholia that has lurked beneath the surface of even his most outrageous comedies. There are some laughs, as when Alberto and Salvador conduct a drug-fuelled Q&A over a mobile phone loudspeaker, but even this scene is undercut by resentment and regret.
Nevertheless, this is a warm, generous film. Pondering how much of Salvador’s story is the Almodóvar’s own is fun but irrelevant to audience enjoyment of Pain & Glory – Almodóvar’s thoughtful film on the healing powers of memory and art will be adored by long-term fans and first-timers alike.