Pain and Glory

Stop me if you heard this one before: An aging, celebrated art house auteur entering what may well be the twilight of their directorial career creates an autobiographical portrait reflecting on their life and art. At this point it's almost something filmmakers of a certain pedigree might feel they must do by default. Hell, Terrence Malick made three films that could be described as such in the last decade. So it may not be much of a surprise for cinephiles to see Pedro Almodovar, perhaps Spain's most acclaimed filmmaker of his generation, look inward as well with his 21st feature Pain and Glory, a beautifully rendered and heartfelt mediation on life, love, family, regret, aging, addiction, and the artistic process.

In Pain and Glory the stand-in for Almodovar is film director Salvador Mallo (Antonio Banderas), first introduced to viewers submerged in a swimming pool, coping with both a crippling lack of interest in filmmaking as well as numerous physical ailments. When one of his earlier works, Sabor, is re-released as part of a career retrospective to appreciative art house audiences he uses the opportunity to reach out to that film's star, Alberto Crespo (Asier Etxeandia), whom he had a falling out with previously (perhaps a reference to the real-life animosity between Almodovar and Banderas earlier in their respective careers.) Alberto is in a similar creative slump, something he deals with by using heroin, a penchant that he introduces to Salvador who finds both physical and emotional solace in the numbing drug. Throughout the film, occasionally brought on by the effects of drugs, Salvador recalls key moments from his childhood in the 1960s, when his immigrant family lived in a poor village under conditions that were close to poverty. While Salvador's father (Raul Arevalo) seemed to have little interest in his son's personal upbringing, he enjoyed a much closer relationship with his mother (Penelope Cruz). When the family enlists the help of a local labourer (Cesar Vicente) who is an experienced painter and handy around the house but cannot read or write, the young Salvador begins tutoring him, while also developing what would be his first romantic feelings for the handsome young man. In the present, Alberto discovers an old monologue Salvador had written about his love of cinema in which a former lover Federico (Leonardo Sbaraglia) is referred to, leading to him and Salvador having a reunion. All the while Salvador continues to wrestle with the fact both his career and health are in decline, while his relationship with his mother and his assistant (Cecilia Roth) who just want the best for him would also prove problematic.

Is Salvador able to overcome his personal demons and rekindle the passion he seems to have lost for his art? Ultimately Pain and Glory is not a story so much about the destination but the journey. For Salvador, artistic expression is the most valuable form of therapy, as his writing and memories, however bittersweet, ultimately coalesce in the form of filmmaking, the only way he knows how to make sense of the world. There's no question this was a very personal film for Almodovar, one that in lesser hands may have come off as a pretentious exercise in artistic vanity. Thankfully, Almodovar and his collaborator's never allow the on-screen events to veer into trite melodrama. Pain and Glory is often brutally honest in its portrayal of Salvador at his worst, as his insecurities and self-loathing manifest in the form of a self-destructive drug addiction that threatens to consume him, but the film is thankfully no mere cautionary tale, nor is it a one-note exercise in suffering. Pain and Glory is a visually sumptuous film punctuated by moments of warmth, humor, and a sensuous longing that has come to define so much of Almodovar's cinema. Banderas does some of the finest work of his career, showing a more vulnerable side while conveying so much world-weariness in his physical being, and the rest of the ensemble cast is similarly impressive, especially Cruz who has consistently done some of her best work in the films of Almodovar. When Pain and Glory does arrive at its finale, at turns both somber and triumphant, Almodovar leaves audiences with a wonderful last shot that perfectly encapsulates what may be his most personal film to date.