Women make the rules in Pedro Almodovar’s world

Pain and Glory is the filmmaker's best work in years

Pain and Glory. Written and directed by Pedro Almodóvar. Starring Antonio Banderas. Rating: 8 (out of 10)

Those accustomed to the oddball sex, Catholic guilt and occasional violence of Pedro Almodóvar’s early work will be surprised to hear that the director seems to have settled into middle age with his latest work, Pain and Glory.

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A rumination on art, inspiration (and the lack of it) and memory in a life filled with chronic pain, the film is melancholy but not without hope, doused as it is in Almodovar’s trademark technicolour cheeriness.

There’s plenty of pain on the menu for Salvador Mallo (Antonio Banderas), an aging film director who battles tinnitus, migraines and back pain, not to mention panic and anxiety. Salvador admits that he’s an atheist on the days when he suffers from only one type of pain; a firm believer on those days when physical and mental anguish collide. Unable to work since spinal fusion surgery and the death of his beloved mother, he spends his days declining invitations from international film festivals; his paintings and the occasional visits from his loyal secretary (Nora Navas) are his only company.

But as it happens, Sabor, Salvador’s masterwork, has been restored and is enjoying a renaissance 32 years after its release. The director views the work anew, although, as his friend Zulema (“Almodovar Girl” Cecilia Roth) points out: “it’s your eyes that have changed, darling, the film is the same.” He decides to track down the film’s star to convince him to participate in a Q&A at the local theatre. Alberto (Asier Etxeandia) and Salvador haven’t spoken since falling out after filming on Sabor wrapped. The two don’t smoke a peace pipe per se: they share heroin. It’s a long habit for Alberto, a new experience for Salvador. And it helps with the pain.

The encounter and the new pastime result in the resurrection of an old work by Salvador, a deeply personal short story called The Addiction. Alberto, his best acting roles behind him, is eager to perform the work as a one-man play and Salvador agrees on the condition that his authorship remain a secret. It becomes a catalyst for a renewed sense of purpose and the reacquaintance of old lovers.

Intertwined with all of this are the frequent memories/fever dreams that Salvador has of his childhood in the 1960s, particularly of his mother (played as a younger woman by Penelope Cruz and in old age by Julieta Serrano). Women rule all in Almodóvar ’s films, and it’s no exception here: whether she’s very much alive – singing and washing clothes in the river – or letting her disappointment be known from beyond the grave, Salvador’s mother is omnipresent.

Pain and Glory
Antonio Banderas plays aging filmmaker Salvador Mallo in Pedro Almodóvar’s masterful new film, Pain and Glory. - Supplied, Manolo Pavón, Sony Pictures Classics

Childhood is where another lovely memory emerges, that of Salvador’s first love. The recollection will prove to be his salvation and form the framework of Almodóvar’s play within a play. Nine-year-old Asier Flores is a natural in these scenes that take place in a colourful train station and in the deceptively sunny, whitewashed cave dwelling in Paterna.

This is a trilogy, of sorts, the third in a series of Almodovar films about the lives of film directors, the first two being Law of Desire (which also featured Banderas) and Bad Education. Here Banderas is even styled to look like Almodovar, from the spiky hairdo to the clothes reportedly borrowed from the director himself. Autobiography can be well-nigh impossible to edit, and Pain and Glory suffers from a few scenes it could do without (in particular the sequences entitled “Anatomy” and “Geography” exploring the gaps in Salvador’s education). Overall, however, past and present flow so naturally and easily – aided by a score by Alberto Iglesias – that we wish it weren’t over so soon.

Pain and Glory is Almodóvar’s best work in years, because it sings its message rather than shouts it. That is thanks, too, in large part to the quiet performance of Antonio Banderas, a wonder of hangdog resignation and resilience all at once. It’s a career-best. “Without filming my life is meaningless,” says Salvador. In that case, may the collaboration between actor and director continue for years to come.


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