Pain and Glory
Pedro Almodovar asks Antonio Banderas to step into his fictionalised shoes in this highly personal drama — and the results are revelatory.
November 07, 2019
Perhaps it's the brightness, with each splash of colour feeling like it comes straight from the heart. Maybe it's the array of familiar faces that fill his frames, as though he's building a cinematic world populated by his favourite people. Or, it could be his sensitive yet vivid way of seeing the world, and the expressive images that arise as a result. Whether one, two or all of the above are responsible, a film by Pedro Almodovar usually proves a highly personal affair — although there may be no more intimate a movie on his four-decade resume than Pain and Glory. Enlisting one of his go-to stars, Antonio Banderas, to play his on-screen surrogate, this rich and reflective drama follows a filmmaker aching with unhappiness, trawling through his memories and being haunted by his inertia.
In a way, Pain and Glory is the Inception of Almodovar films. An acclaimed director steps into his own history by making a movie about a famous director doing just that, with both real and fictional helmers reuniting with an actor who's shaped their career. In Almodovar's case, that should be actors. Banderas leads the show, while Penelope Cruz, the other great Spanish talent that came to fame under the filmmaker's 90s-era gaze, appears in flashbacks as the protagonist's mother. This casting, and the fact that Banderas has been styled to look like Almodovar, is crucial. The actor even wears some of the writer/director's own clothes, and his character lives in a recreation of Almodovar's home. Although Pain and Glory isn't the filmmaker's first movie to include personal elements, he purposefully draws parallels between fact and fiction here — grappling with the idea of revealing a piece of himself with each work, something all artists do, in a wholehearted manner.
Salvador Mallo (Banderas) also ponders the same notion. His glory years seemingly behind him, he thinks his days of leaving a bit of himself in each movie are long gone as well. Fans still clamour for his work, as an anniversary screening of his breakout hit shows, but his focus is elsewhere. Mainly, he's consumed by pain from various ailments. When his former star Alberto (Asier Etxeandia) re-enters his life and introduces him to heroin, he becomes preoccupied with glimpses of his childhood that swirl through his mind. Still, Mallo has been working on an autobiographical text — and when he reluctantly lets Alberto turn its contents, including his 80s affair with his great love Federico (Leonardo Sbaraglia), into a one-man theatre show, the experience is revelatory.
There's a quiet, thorny and tender core to Mallo's plight but, as the likes of All About My Mother, Volver and Julieta have shown, Almodovar operates in sumptuous, sweeping mode. Far from struggling with the contrast, Pain and Glory is equally restrained and resonant, making exceptional use of its softer and livelier moments alike. So too does this year's Cannes Best Actor award-winner Banderas. Across his layered, multi-decade filmography spanning both Spanish and Hollywood cinema, he's never been better. Indeed, he's the best he's been since following Almodovar into completely different territory his last great performance in 2011's The Skin I Live In. Understated, introspective, gentle and melancholic, rather than the vastly more overt characters he has often played for the director, Banderas frequently conveys all of Mallo's hurts, anxieties and fears without saying a word.
It's little wonder that cinematographer José Luis Alcaine (a veteran of Almodovar's work for decades, too) can't find anything as interesting to stare at as Banderas. The actor is a moving canvas within the film's broader frame and, every time you peer his way, the picture changes to something just as astonishing. Unsurprisingly, Cruz comes close to matching him. As the feisty mother to a pre-teen Mallo (Asier Flores) in the 60s, she lights up the screen the way that she lit up the boy's formative years. Her scenes are wistful by design, as you'd expect when an ageing man escapes into his head to take stock of his life. That said, few filmmakers can so seamlessly integrate the ghosts of the past with the woes of the present as Almodovar.
Perhaps his genius stems from the reality that, amid the evocative colour and movement, Almodovar is unafraid to glare at hard truths while he's opening up his heart. If only we could all sift through our lives, losses, needs and desires as meticulously and beautifully as the Spanish auteur. Heaving with emotion, his Pain and Glory is a movie to get lost in — and, as anyone who's ever faced their own crossroads or confronted their mortality can attest, it's also a film of sublime and unwavering honesty.