Pedro Almodovar has drawn on his life in his filmmaking before, but his latest feature, Pain & Glory, takes that impulse to new heights. For those who know the filmmaker’s work well, it’s a capstone to his career; for those new to his work, it’s a great introduction to his style and to themes that he has treated repeatedly in his films. Above all, it’s an amazingly beautiful film to watch, full of bright colors and well-chosen locations and perfectly framed shots.
Salvador Mallo (Antonio Banderas) is a distinguished film director who finds that he cannot work, due to a variety of physical and mental complaints. Enter a blast from the past: A movie (Sabor, or “Flavor”) that he made decades ago has been restored and is getting the gala treatment, and he’s been asked to speak at a special screening of it. There’s a catch, however—the sponsors want him to co-present with the lead actor from Sabor, Alberto Crespo (Asier Etzeandia), with whom Salvador had a falling out years ago due to the actor’s heroin use. It turns out Alberto is still using heroin, and pretty soon Salvador is as well, finding it offers better relief from his chronic pain than the prescription drugs he’s been taking. It’s the first of many reconciliations in a film that’s all about making sense of the present by coming to terms with the past.
Smoking dope set off a series of reminiscences, taking Salvador back to his early, impoverished childhood, when he and his mother Jacinta (Penelope Cruz) lived in a literal cave. Salvador was a precocious child, however, and soon his resourceful mother makes a deal with a local laborer (César Vicente)—Salvador will teach the man to read and write, and the laborer will do some construction work to make their home more homey. That the laborer is seriously hunky is not lost on young Salvador, who faints at the sight of the man bathing. The laborer is also a gifted artist, and a painting he makes of Salvador will turn up in the present day.
Salvador also meets up in the present day with one of his exes, Federico (Leonardo Sbaraglia). Although Federico is now a married man with children, it’s clear he still loves Salvador, and the two share memories before parting on good terms. If this all sounds a little too easy, it’s because Pain & Glory is more of a fable than straight autobiography, a creative reimagining of a life rather than the life itself. This approach will be made clear in the film’s final scene, which reconciles past and present in a satisfying if not wholly original fashion.
One knock on Pain & Glory is that it rehashes a familiar trope, that of an aging creative artist looking back on his life and work in an effort to make sense of it all and regain his creative mojo. Unlike, say, Bob Fosse’s gonzo take on his own life in All That Jazz, however, Pain & Glory sticks close to naturalism throughout, with its many flashbacks presented in a similar style as the present-day material. Besides, when a trope is as well executed as it is in Pain & Glory, it’s silly to complain that it’s all been done before, because that’s the case for almost every film you will ever see. The point is that Almodovar created something fresh and new while drawing on themes and ideas many other directors have also used, and the result is a film that is both insightful and entertaining. | Sarah Boslaugh