At over twenty features, no one can accuse acclaimed filmmaker Pedro Almodóvar of taking it easy. Now, here he is delivering Pain and Glory, a film that feels self-reflective and of a different pace than some of his more recent efforts. Make no mistake, this is still a character-focused human drama, defined by strong performances as well as deliberate visual choices. At the same time, the film, which the Cannes Film Festival awarded star Antonio Banderas a Best Actor trophy for, eases into a zone that feels quite comfortable for the venerable director. Still, even as he’s gotten older, Almodóvar puts in enough here to suggest he has a ways to go before stopping.
Banderas stars as Salvador Mallo, a retired film director who finds himself reliving the past in various ways. A restoration of one of his older films brings up memories and figures from the past. At the same time, Salvador spends time thinking back to his childhood in the 60s, living with his mother (Penelope Cruz). Seeing these timelines, along with scenes with his mother later in her life, allow for many sequences showing how it is that Salvador arrived at where he is when it comes to his current he state of mind.
Looking at big Hollywood stars from past eras such as Paul Newman and Clint Eastwood, it’s interesting to see how many of them redefined themselves as introspective dramatic performers in their later years. I wonder if Banderas sees himself the same way. He’s only a couple of years older than Tom Cruise, and a few years away from co-starring in Expendables 3 (where he was one of the few highlights), but Banderas’ days as an action star seem to have been replaced by the occasional beard and self-reflection.
However, looking at Banderas’ film career, it’s not as though he started as El Mariachi or Zorro. The man was a theater actor who was discovered by Almodóvar. Early roles in his films led to supporting parts in high profile films such as Philadelphia and Interview with the Vampire. He broke out bigger with Desperado, but there’s always been a theatricality to the various roles he has taken. It’s all the more fitting that we find Banderas in Pain and Glory as a director in his decline, reflecting on choices he made in the past.
At the same time, Almodóvar has written a story that is at least partially inspired by his own life. To what extent it does not matter. It makes no difference how Almodóvar discovered his sexuality or whether or not he had whatever health or substance abuse issues seen within the film. What matters is the emotion he has tried to create in letting audiences have a look inside his mind. Regardless of how inauthentic the story may be as a direct adaptation of his life, here’s a director who has embraced multiple decades of success and now wants to elaborate on what it means.
To be clear, it’s not a matter of how he achieved such success. Instead, Pain and Glory looks at what has been done with it. Banderas’ Salvador is not portrayed as the most virtuous of characters. There was bad blood between him and a former star of one of his films, and even in attempting to mend fences, he still finds ways to reopen old wounds. In trying to deal with a health issue, Salvador turns to heroin over making better choices. Fortunately, this film is above succumbing to the perils of an addiction storyline.
If anything, the film is at its best when it takes steps back from significant developments in a film fairly light on plot. Watching Salvador contend with the various people now in his life allows for conversations that are either enjoyable to watch or full of emotion thanks to a level of weight that feels effectively conveyed in the performances. One encounter that arrives following a one-person show performance lets Salvador speak with someone he hasn’t seen in ages, and its all the more compelling for the build-up to said encounter and the careful framing of two individuals in Salvador’s comfortable apartment (which is actually Almodóvar’s own Madrid home).
Shifting gears to the flashbacks, seeing the segments from the 60s managed to show off more of Almodóvar’s familiar cinematic skill. Between the uses of color and incorporation of slow motion, there’s plenty to take in, as we watch a young boy observe and interact with his mother and the laborer who is helping fix up the unique cave home young Salvador is living in. Cruz, another veteran when it comes to the films of Almodóvar, also does excellent work in her supporting role, bringing the right sense as a smart woman with plenty of care for her child.
For the most part, Pain and Glory gets by on just how much ease it has in sliding between periods and various character-based conversations. We get a sense of history surrounding Salvador, without feeling lectured about who he is. As the film arrives at its conclusion, I was plenty satisfied with the small-scale journey the film took me on, only to be taken aback by one more wonderful surprise that ended the movie. A film like this doesn’t necessarily need to pack that kind of punch, but in addition to all I received from Banderas and Almodóvar’s efforts, it was nice to go out with extra weight added to my smile.