Starring in Pedro Almodóvar’s richly self-reflexive drama Pain & Glory, Antonio Banderas sports a version of Almodóvar’s spiky hairdo and more than a hint of the Oscar-winning filmmaker’s colorful fashion sense. Salvador Mallo, the fictitious, gay Spanish filmmaker that Banderas portrays, might not be precisely molded on the writer-director of All About My Mother and Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, but Salvador’s story in Pain & Glory appears to be the closest we’ve seen to Almodóvar contemplating himself as a character onscreen.
As such, Pain & Glory (★★★★☆) amounts to a daring act of confession, or a canny convergence of truth and fantasy, a shared intimacy between folks who’ve lived enough to be done with pretending. And however candid, the film is built on not just one, but many confessions — some spoken between characters, some spoken to Almodóvar’s audience, via collaborators like Banderas.
The actor first achieved international fame as the most prominent of Almodóvar’s early muses in hits like Law of Desire and Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!, then went more than 20 years before teaming up with the director again for the haunting 2011 thriller Skin I Live In. So Banderas brings his own multi-layered history to playing Salvador, an artist in the later stages of a celebrated career, who reconnects with his former muse Alberto Crespo (Asier Etxeandia), an actor who shot to stardom appearing in Salvador’s films. Since a falling-out on their most famous film together, the long-estranged friends haven’t worked together or even spoken in over 30 years, but Salvador seeks to bury the hatchet when they’re both invited to come present at a film festival.
Really, what Salvador’s seeking is some shock to his system, to resuscitate him from a midlife malaise exacerbated by loss, loneliness, and the aches and pains of aging. It’s been years since he last made a movie, and he not only fears that his creative fires might be dying, but that his body can no longer hold up to the rigors of film production. In his quiet desperation, he’s not exactly sure what he needs to right himself, until he feels his first hit of heroin.
Alberto introduces Salvador to smoking up while they make up, and, indeed, “chasing the dragon” helps trigger a rush of mostly rosy recollections for Salvador of his childhood, and of his mother Jacinta (Penélope Cruz). But, as Salvador follows this Proustian trail towards rediscovering seminal sparks of inspiration, he also treads a dangerous path towards possible dependency on heroin and opioids. You can bet that smoky path also leads to some of the film’s juicy confessions — though, ultimately, Pain & Glory is less about addiction than about inspiration.
One of the film’s most inspired qualities is Banderas’ flawless performance. His Salvador can sting with his unfussy wit and candor in exchanges with Alberto or with his hardworking assistant Mercedes (Nora Navas), then he might melt with affection when an old lover, Federico (Leonardo Sbaraglia), turns up out of nowhere in Madrid.
Time and again, Almodóvar’s script conveniently provides Salvador just the right opportunities for closure and redemption (plot coincidences like Federico’s appearance can feel far too fortuitous), yet the emotional payoff of those moments lands beautifully, caressed by careful pacing and the painterly cinematography of José Luis Alcaine, another longtime Almodóvar collaborator. A scene from Salvador’s boyhood, depicting statuesque laborer Eduardo (César Vicente) bathing in clear sight of nine-year-old Salvador (Asier Flores) looks like a work of art that might be forever seared on the boy’s brain.
The film is a work of art that might especially sear itself in the memories of viewers who have followed Almodóvar and Banderas and their shared artistic journey across eight films and nearly 40 years since their first feature together, Labyrinth of Passion. But whether entering Almodóvar’s world for the first or the twenty-first time, the film provides a smart, lucid look at a passionate search for purpose and connection, and how to keep the juices flowing, at an age when the body and mind might be slowing down. Whatever Salvador Mallo’s struggles may be to keep up with the public’s high expectations, Pain & Glory demonstrates that Almodóvar still wields the power and ambition to exceed what’s expected of him.
Pain & Glory is rated R, and opens Friday, Oct. 11 at Landmark’s E Street and Bethesda Row Cinemas. Visit www.landmarktheatres.com/washington-d-c.