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Pedro Almodóvar's 'Pain & Glory' Turns Inward, With Mixed but Moving Results


Published November 13, 2019 at 10:00 a.m.
Updated December 21, 2019 at 12:16 p.m.

ALL ABOUT ME Banderas plays a filmmaker in Almodóvar’s self-referential - film that manages to sidestep self-glorification.
  • ALL ABOUT ME Banderas plays a filmmaker in Almodóvar’s self-referentialfilm that manages to sidestep self-glorification.

It feels like a long time since Pedro Almodóvar has been the bad boy of European cinema. So long that, after seeing his latest film, the semiautobiographical Pain & Glory, I found myself going back to a review of one of his early, anarchic efforts. "He may not know how to make anything stay with you — he may not even care to," Pauline Kael wrote of the director in 1985. "He just likes to put on a show."

Those words may sound negative out of context, but Kael liked the slapdash, outrageous showmanship of younger Almodóvar. The work of a 70-year-old artist, Pain & Glory is serious and sedate, yet it shares a disconnected quality with those earlier works. A film about aging and retrospection, it's a series of solid scenes that don't build to much; not a lot "stays with you." But one of its saving graces is that you get the sense Almodóvar might be OK with that.

Antonio Banderas plays world-renowned director Salvador Mallo. His life is "meaningless" without filmmaking, he says, yet an array of ailments have forced him into retirement. Reconnecting with an actor (Asier Etxeandia) from whom he's been estranged, Salvador accepts a casual offer of heroin. The drug relieves his pain, and he wants more.

Meanwhile, the actor discovers a story Salvador has written about a long-lost lover's struggle with heroin; he hopes to turn Salvador's reminiscence into a theater piece. And all of this is threaded together with flashbacks to Salvador's working-class childhood, in which Penélope Cruz plays his mother.

What sounds like the recipe for a hearty stew of melodrama plays out like a light, bittersweet tasting menu. Salvador's tension with the actor never reaches a boil. His experiment with heroin remains pretty much just that. The flashbacks set up poignant scenes between the adult Salvador and his elderly mom (Julieta Serrano), but the past offers no great revelations. In short, the film feels anticlimactic, despite a lovely final twist.

Yet Banderas plays Salvador with such gentle, unpretentious sadness that he keeps us invested, despite the low stakes. It's rare (and welcome) to see a movie take chronic aches and pains seriously, rather than turn them into occasions for aging-related jokes. Banderas makes Salvador's physical fragility and depression real without playing him as a martyr.

More than anything, Pain & Glory is an opportunity to hang out with someone who reminds us of its creator. (Salvador's personal appearance and home décor mirror the director's own, though Almodóvar has told interviewers that he based the story on a mix of his and others' experiences.) And Salvador is good company.

Where so many celebrated auteurs would depict their own physical decline in grandiose terms, asking us to mourn the potential loss of their talent, Almodóvar does it with a wry shrug. Instead of showing us the adoring fans, he brings Salvador's mom on-screen to scold him for the way he presents his origins on film, thereby giving those sweet childhood flashbacks a layer of irony.

No, there isn't much glory in Pain & Glory, or much of the irreverent energy that powered classics like Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown. But one thing will never change: Almodóvar's bracing faith in the power of stories to connect people. Initially, Salvador is reluctant to give the actor the rights to his reminiscence, declaring his time in the limelight over. By the end, he's realized he will never be done putting on a show.

The original print version of this article was headlined "Pain & Glory"