Pain and Glory finds Pedro Almodovar, never exactly a ‘closed book’ of a filmmaker, in the most self-reflective mood of his entire career. Examining his own life, from childhood in Franco’s Spain to his current status as an immensely respected icon of world cinema, Almodovar is as open as he’s ever been, and the result is a film that takes a while to get off the ground but grows and grows on you until the effect is entirely overpowering. It’s a story of gratitude, forgiveness, and lifelong connections; warm, witty, and winning as it draws you in at its own pace.
Almodovar’s avatar in Pain and Glory is Salvador Mallo (played by Antonio Banderas as an adult and Asier Flores as a child), a writer-director in his 60s, afflicted by various ailments that are preventing him from getting to work on his next project. Instead, he fills his time reminiscing – an upcoming retrospective of his ‘80s work giving him an excuse to reconnect with his former leading man Alberto Crespo (Asier Etxeanda). Initially brittle with one another, the reunited collaborators bond over Alberto’s ready supply of heroin, and these drugged up reveries send Salvador further into his past, snatching dreamlike memories of his childhood living in a cave house with his mother Jacinta (Penelope Cruz).
This subject matter, in tandem with the slow, considered pace, can make Pain and Glory initially seem self-indulgent, especially with the minimal plot that languidly weaves between time periods. Yet, Almodovar’s script takes such care in building this world and inhabiting with believable, recognisable figures that, by the end, you’ll be beaming at the slightest breakthroughs. A huge part of this is also down to Antonio Banderas, who is simply brilliant. Styled to look like Almodovar, Banderas still gives Salvador a full life of his own, infusing a deep story into every gesture with a sly ease.
His Best Actor win at Cannes was thoroughly deserved, and from getting the giggles while coked up at a Q+A to his emotionally fraught but utterly devoted care of Jacinta (played as an older woman by Julieta Serrano) in her dying days, he’s a delight to be around. It’s hardly a performance of bombastic energy or explosive emotion, but Banderas owns the screen without ever needing to go ‘big’. Etxeandia is also fantastic as an artist who could never quite escape Salvador’s shadow, whilst Leonardo Sbaraglia and Cesar Vicente make huge impressions in briefer roles as ghosts of Salvador’s past.
As one would expect from an Almodovar joint, the colours, set designs, and compositions are consistently gorgeous, all splashy colours and satisfying geometry. Salvador’s childhood home in the white caves of Paterna bursts with light and life, and as its natural crags and crevices give way to the deliberate and sharp angles of Salvador’s apartment in Madrid, so too do the colours get deeper and more vibrant. The style and substance here work in concert to create a richly textured world that is incredibly inviting and appealing as well as hard to leave.
There is very little antagonistic conflict in Pain and Glory. This is a kind film about kindness, and how these acts of kindness, whether to others or yourself, can flit through time, altering your future and your past. It may seem a little frustrating and lackadaisical to begin with, but give it time and it reveals itself to be a wonderfully rewarding watch that builds and builds its immersive power all the way to a final shot that is both cheekily meta and sincerely affecting.