Pain and Glory Review
If you have seen the trailer or read anything about Pedro Almodóvar’s Pain and Glory you probably aren’t in any doubt as to who his 21st film is about. Now at the grand age of 70, the Spanish director has decided now is the time to reflect on his life and a career spanning 40 years in this nostalgic Cannes award-winning drama. Just in case you don’t get it, there’s quite a few blunt pointers along the way, although as his script tells us, he is no fan of auto-fiction.
Self-indulgence is something that is well within Almodóvar’s armoury, which is why making such a luscious looking film about filmmaking, family and loves past isn’t the disaster it perhaps could’ve been in the hands of someone else. This is the director in a reflective mood, patching together moments from his childhood and - at least in part - recreating life-shaping memories. And while it shows there is still some life in the old dog yet, it also further confirms much of the magic has waned.
Antonio Banderas is cast as the man to relive some of Almodóvar’s past, appearing as a director called Salvador Mallo who is slowly being ruined from the inside out by his ailing body. The list of aches, pains and illnesses afflicting him are anatomically broken down in detail within the first ten minutes, and Salvador says he is so consumed by pain that getting back behind the camera is no longer an option. He has slowly shut himself off from the world inside his plush Madrid apartment (which is in fact Almodóvar’s own) but the restoration of a film he made 32 years ago by the Spanish Cinematheque brings him back into contact with its leading man who he hasn’t spoken to since.
Naturally, Alberto (Asier Etxeandia) isn’t expecting Salvador’s sudden arrival on his doorstep, but time has allowed the director to appreciate a performance he once couldn’t abide. Alberto is a renowned heroin addict who hasn’t performed in years and surprisingly, once barriers have been broken down between the two, Salvador decides to try the brown stuff for the first time; whatever it takes to ease the pain. He’s soon using it regularly and as he nods off it allows Almodóvar to drift off into Salvador’s mind, back to his childhood and cherished relationship with mother Jacinta (Penelope Cruz).
Banderas’ channelling of Almodóvar openly ponders how much the director has left to give behind the camera. When the edge has faded and there isn’t anything new to say, or any new way of saying the same thing, do you continue to indulge in your passion or quietly step away? Not that the real-world version has slowed down in any way, but his onscreen alter-ego is in the midst of an existential journey he must have at least in part experienced as a veteran filmmaker. It doesn’t require a huge leap to suggest that Salvador’s growing addiction to heroin speaks to Almodóvar’s compulsive need to continue directing for as long as it remains possible.
Yet for all the self-indulgence of making a film inspired by his own life, Pain and Glory is a continuation of the stripped-down style that characterised 2016’s Julieta. It is more disciplined than anything you can think of from his previous decade of work and the formal style is perhaps reflective of a creative entering later life. As a result the film is also much less engaging, with long stretches feeling ponderous, the length of some scenes unneeded and lacking direction. A strong case in point occurs when Alberto performs a piece of text on stage written by Salvador. The moment is intended to be intimate and heartfelt but instead feels forced and stripped of its desired emotional effect.
The careers of Banderas and Cruz are intertwined with Almodóvar’s own and yet apart from a brief appearance together in I’m So Excited they have never shared the screen for any long period of time and seem destined not to. You can see why Banderas’ performance is being spoken of in awards terms, as its genuine warmth is the sticking glue that keeps Pain and Glory hanging together. Salvador’s ego has been humbled by age and the mounting pain inflicted by his own body, and regardless of how much of Almodóvar is in his performance, it’s one of the best Banderas has given throughout his long career.
Pain and Glory looks as sumptuous as any of Almodóvar’s previous films thanks to long-time DoP José Luis Alcaine’s intense use of colour which turns even the most mundane of settings into an vibrant oil painting. As slow and meandering as the film feels at times, Alcaine’s eye is a constant that enlivens the screen when the narrative struggles to. Those moments of involvement are increasingly rare the longer it goes on but one guesses this may be one of Almodóvar’s most cathartic films of his career.
Pain and Glory opens in select UK cinemas on August 23.