A gorgeously crafted memoir of a jaded filmmaker past his prime, ‘Pain and Glory’ could be Pedro Almodóvar’s most autobiographical work since ‘Law of Desire’. The grand irony, of course, is that there’s nothing jaded about the filmmaking on display: it’s drenched in a passion for cinema and shows Almodóvar right at the peak of his powers. There’s no sense of waning creativity, only a mood of longing and nostalgia that’s unmistakeably from a deeply personal place. You could call it Almodóvar’s ‘Cinema Paradiso’.
The man at its heart is Salvador Mallo (Antonio Banderas), a Madrid filmmaker suffering from all sorts of aches, pains and maladies that make him a prisoner in his own body. He questions his mortality as a matter of routine, but his immortality – professionally, at least – is guaranteed by ‘Taste’, a big arthouse smash from the ’80s that’s being celebrated with an upcoming screening. He’s been invited, along with the film’s stormy star Alberto Crespo (Asier Etxeandia), and asked to participate in a Q&A afterwards. The wrinkle is that the pair fell out making the movie and haven’t spoken since, and when Salvador initiates a reconciliation it ends in a heroin-addled fug with the ageing auteur availing himself of Crespo’s supply. The Q&A, inevitably, doesn’t go well.
Banderas is terrific. He’s Almodóvar’s on-screen alter ego right down to the greying rebel hairdo and strikingly coloured outfit of polo shirt and trainers. He inhabits the character with a sense of haunted distraction; a man in his sixties belatedly trying be reconciled with his earlier life and clear his emotional debts. There are touching scenes with the old friend he fell out with and the boyfriend who drove him to despair. Most movingly, we see his mother (played as an elderly woman by Julieta Serrano) in ghostly flashback, untangling rosaries in an armchair as she tells him how she wants to be dressed at her funeral.
‘Pain and Glory’ dips repeatedly into Salvador’s past, with old memories floating through the film like a breeze through an open window. The film begins with his mother (played by Penélope Cruz in her younger years) singing along to a flamenco song as a group of women wash white sheets by a river. There’s a sexual awakening as the young Salvador spies a bare-skinned builder showering himself in a garden surrounded by whitewashed walls. We see him as a child with his seamstress mother in a station as the town around them celebrates a local holiday and sets off fireworks. Almodóvar fills this poignant tapestry of recollections with bold colours and infuses them with emotional detail. It’s a deeply intimate experience and it’ll pierce your heart.