Pedro Almodóvar’s is a cinema of misfits, for misfits. It’s a generous, cacophonous and brightly-colored universe that’s sought—over the course of a glorious, four-decade-plus career—to make a place for everyone, including and especially those relegated to society’s margins. His humanist and sensitive eye has zeroed in on women’s experience as well as those of homosexuals, drag queens and transgender people—reckoning with their plight (in the case of the latter in particular) long before they found a place in mainstream debate.
It is also a cinema steeped in auto-fiction, crisscrossing between truth an artifice, where melodramas are laced with rich autobiographical details—his 2004 masterwork Bad Education remains possibly the most notable case in point. But even as they draw from real life fodder, Almodóvar’s films do not register as confessionals, and labelling them so would be to miss the point. Their beauty and vital lymph resides at the interstice between reality and representation, that liminal space where art bursts to life.
Pain and Glory, Almodóvar’s superb new film, scintillates with the same empathy and auto-fictional flair of earlier works, but opens up a new chapter where the two can come together. A director who’s devoted much of his oeuvre to extend empathy toward countercultures and pariahs, to vindicate a stage where even the outcasts could speak up and shine, Pain and Glory allows Almodóvar to carve one for himself. Nowhere has his meta-fictional glance felt more personal, more inwardly-cast and affectionate than it does in here, and the result is a profoundly elegiac work celebrating memory and filmmaking as two instruments that are profoundly therapeutic, and indissolubly intertwined.
It is as entrancing and ethereal as the reveries of the man at its center, renowned Madrid-based director Salvador Mallo, an artist at an emotional and creative standstill played with career-high bravado by Antonio Banderas, one of Almodóvar’s oldest collaborators and muses (over the last four decades, this is the eighth film they’ve made together). Years have passed since Salvador’s last project, and while the man is unmistakably aware that so much is at stake (“without filming my life is meaningless,” he bursts to a friend halfway through) there’s also a certain acceptance in the epiphany, a voluntary surrender. “But if you stop writing films, what will you do?” she asks him, concerned. He shrugs. “Live, I suppose.”
Not that living comes any easier. For Salvador suffers from virtually every ailment imaginable—from anxiety to migraines, from tinnitus to a paralyzing back pain. At sixty, he’s the empty chrysalis of the cineaste who, thirty years prior, directed Sabor (Taste), a drama that helped consecrating Salvador as auteur, but also led him to a fallout with lead actor Alberto (Asier Exteandia), a man whose reckless heroine consumption went in the way of the director’s vision. A public screening of the early hit turns into an opportunity for a long overdue reconciliation. Alberto’s addiction hasn’t receded altogether—efforts to quit have been replaced by a dosage-control strategy—and if the unexpected sight of Salvador’s fatigued, pensive face visibly shocks the thespian, Alberto’s surprise isn’t a patch on the dumbfounded look he throws the director after Salvador suggests the two shoot heroin together.
Lulled by the drug, Salvador descends into a world of reveries and flashbacks that intersperse Pain and Glory like snippets from a movie running parallel to his own life (a feeling that thickens until a cathartic and revealing finale). They are the flickering relics of a childhood spent in poverty but lived with indomitable dignity, with preschooler Salvador (played by Asier Flores, a child with preternatural stage presence) trailing behind his mother (Almodóvar’s other regular muse Penélope Cruz) as the family struggles to make ends meet while crammed in a cave-like dwelling. In a plot that unfolds as a series of vignettes of chance encounters, the beauty of Pain and Glory resides in its serendipity. To embark in Almodóvar/Salvador’s journey is to ricochet between memories and their random present-day resurfacing. Old lovers show up at the director’s doorstep; some others, older still, inhabit a world of flashbacks which Antxón Gómez’s production design and Paola Torres’ costumes bring back to life in a triumph of vivid palettes.
But the film’s crowning glory is its own lead. Stubbled and crowned with a silvery mop of spiked hair, Banderas is unmistakably designed to look like Almodóvar’s stand-in. Wary, aloof, forced into a self-imposed exile, he stages a moving portrait of an artist as an old man, stripping Salvador of his defense mechanisms, and laying uncomfortably bare all his ambiguities. This is a man who remains inescapably narcissistic and vain even as he contemplates his desolating loneliness, a man whose detached façade crumbles the minute he allows the past to resurface. There is a whole movie in the heart-stopping late-night rendezvous between Salvador and an old lover (Leonardo Sbaraglia), so much aching and longing in the glances Banderas darts as he watches him fall indelibly back into the past.
And in a film where drug abuse plays a crucial role, the past may well be Salvador’s strongest addiction. Pain and Glory is an act of recollection, and a painful one at that. The glory Almodóvar’s title alludes to is hashed out in the past tense, crystallized in Salvador’s gorgeous, art-crammed Madrid apartment (incidentally, Almodóvar’s own), a simulacrum of past triumphs now wrapped in darkness and silence. For this remains a story of suffering, one that dwells on the pain of artistic creation as it is experienced by those who struggle to reconnect to their past through art, and in the process, find some solace from a present marooned in devastating solitude.