Nick Vass’s review published on Letterboxd:
In a career of notable garishness, this kicks off with Almodóvar's most dazzling intro to date. (Or at the very least, on par with his scratched wallpaper from Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown.) Each swirl of colour appears as if it's been projected from a kaleidoscope! Though it's a boldly fluid motif that more filmmakers should use, the style serves a thematic point: how one aspect of life can form into another.
Meanwhile, it's further enhanced by a hauntingly elusive score, and his vitalized trademark text-cards, soon to be ruptured when recluse filmmaker Salvador Malla (Antonio Benderas) is seen underwater with a chest scar. That image itself is the first cornerstone for Pain and Glory, in which Salvador's physical pain, has fueled into a state of depressive self-destruction. How can someone so battered be able to find the glory again?
Talk about suffering. From abrupt congestion, horrid back pain, and tinnitus. (The artful sequence, where each ailment is shown via CAT scan, is a languorous stunner.) There's also a tender specificity to Salvador's flashbacks, by meditating from his pill-popped current state to childhood memories. His prickly mother Jacinta (Penélope Cruz), who sings and washes clothes by a river with other women, is so lovably personal that Almodóvar goes beyond autofiction.
The thoroughline is indebted to a filmmaker's creative paralysis à la 8½. While this doesn't have the ouroboros brilliance of that film, it sure has the pathos, which distorts and mends Salvador as he encounters the estranged figures of his past. During the flashbacks, there's wistful endearment, featuring spitfire charisma by Asier Flores as young Salvador ("Does Liz Taylor sew Robert Taylor’s socks?") and the literally cavernous home when his family relocates to Paterna.
If anything, I felt this was more akin to Wild Strawberries and its reconciled power, as two pivotal figures re-enter his life. (One is coerced, the other is by chance.) Decades ago, Salvador had a rift with his Sabor star Alberto (Asier Etxeandia) who he's approached for a retrospective, and former lover Federico (Leonardo Sbaraglia) eviscerates all emotions when the "Addiction" monologue is enacted in the Madrid Theater.
The opposite parallel between Salvador and Alberto is bittersweet, too. With Banderas giving his strongest work as an Almodóvarian lookalike of jaded dissatisfaction, and Exteandia going boisterous bohemia when offering heroin tinfoil. (Both of their homes also have the typically sumptuous décor of artistic fandom.) This reaches its hilarious peak around the drugged telephone Q&A of Sabor, yet also memorable for how swiftly it ventures to dramatic conflict, as Salvador suggests that Alberto didn't unearth the performance he wanted.
Even the reconnected bond of two lovers managed to move me. As it's poignant without outside interruption; two different men—Salvador in wounded stasis, Federico enriched by his films, soon to consider what was once a distant memory. After this point, some pitfalls had sadly risen, with Almodóvar refusing to self-muse into Salvador's keenness for cinema, replaying a hit-and-miss voiceover that had been forgotten, and still not providing assistant Mercedes (Nora Navas) with an inner life that exists outside of caretaker servitude.
If the past reveries aren't correlated to a filmmaker's career, they're livened by sexual awakening. Like the remarkable payoff with illiterate, sculpted painter Eduardo (César Vicente) who is taught by Salvador to read and write. Still, it soon wanes, with the extended, penultimate crux of Jacinta and Salvador's estrangement. "I’ve failed you simply by being as I am", is a piercing dagger from him, though Julieta Serrano's part would've functioned more if she received earlier screentime, or depicted the maternal disdain for her son.
Renewal between family isn't Almodóvar's main preoccupation. Instead, it's about Salvador's artistic rebirth from the dumps, and how essential that can be for his own affirmation. I was deeply moved by the plight of this protagonist, and the exclusive angle that's been shed from its creator. After the ravages of mental and physical pain, there's healing to be made, with delicate encounters that once ended indelicately. That's beautiful.