Fred Kolb’s review published on Letterboxd:
I was the only person in my showing of “Pain and Glory” this morning and there was something appropriate, yet inexpressibly saddening about the experience. After all, it’s about a filmmaker whose ongoing drought of creativity has relegated him to irrelevancy with audiences. Not that this applies to Almodovar or his latest project, but it absolutely does lend itself to being watched in solitude and silence to connect with this story even better. Salvador Mallo hasn’t put out a hit in years and is suffering from all sorts of physical maladies, not to mention severe writer’s block. He hasn’t worked in ages and keeps brooding over mistakes made in bygone days. Almodovar, whose career I have been largely unfamiliar with until today, almost stages “Pain and Glory” as a series of vignettes, brief encounters that allow Salvador to finally find closure from some of his most debilitating memories and unresolved feuds. It’s an intimate and emotionally affecting portrayal of a weakened man, sick and suffering from addiction, slowly being lifted up to his feet again by finding the courage to look for inspiration in the one place he has thus far refused to go to: his own past.
Antonio Banderas, who was deservedly awarded the price for Best Actor in Cannes, is a revelation and the anchor in a film that without his grounding, melancholy presence in the center would be a bit too chaotic to completely work. He at one point offers some advice to an actor he hasn’t spoken to in decades that Banderas himself seems to have internalized for his performance. The greatest actors don’t cry during a sad scene. They come close, just to the edge, but then don’t. Despondency and disillusionment permanently radiate from the disheveled, grumpy director, who spends most of his days behind closed doors in his colorful home feeling sorry for himself. But it’s hard not to sympathize with the guy. His childhood self, which the film occasionally flashes back to, was full of curiosity and exuberance, the very antithesis of his perpetually anxious, pious mother (Penelope Cruz). Even the prospect of living in a bleak underground cave excites him. It’s hard to imagine what could have happened to him to wear him down to such a dispirited wreck in adulthood.
Almodovar pays off most of the various threads he introduces here with impressive poignancy, even if it’s hard to get a full sense of the picture he is drawing for us. Salvador keeps having emotional run-ins with people who have not been part of his life for ages, and once they have served their purpose, they are shoved out of the way. And the flashbacks to his upbringing in rural Paterna and his time in the seminary are randomly thrown in without much rhyme or rhythm until we finally understand their purpose at the very end, an admittedly brilliant final note. Those aren’t detrimental shortcomings, but the structure definitely feels off and it’s a bit difficult to stay on Almodovar’s wavelength all the way through. I suspect the film might benefit from a rewatch.
The cast is more than up to the task, and especially Asier Etxeandia as a washed up actor trying to kick his drug abuse to find rewarding work again plays off incredibly well against Banderas in top-form. There’s something indescribably depressing about two men, who fell out over one of them having a heroin addiction, renewing their bond after thirty years by the other man asking to try some for the first time. When you look back on your life, you get few chances to fix the bridges you once chose to burn. Given that Salvador is plainly meant to be a stand-in for Almodovar, who turned 70 this year, “Pain and Glory” allows him to give voice to his regrets via a film in which the protagonist is finally forcing himself to reckon with his failures. Even though this is unlikely to be the last we hear of Almodovar, this would be a terrific and fitting effort to end his career on.