There are certain filmmakers who simply embody the essence of what their country, culture, and style are at their core; that the sheer mention of their name conjures a body of work worthy of showing off as the crème de la crème of their respective nation. America has Steven Spielberg, France has Jean-Luc Godard, Japan has Akira Kurosawa, Iran has Asghar Farhadi, and Spain has the illustrious and ostentatious Pedro Almodóvar. Almodóvar is not a filmmaker who has ever given in to the pressure of the film industry to be something other than himself. His work is intimate, sensual, colorful, poetic and is always tinged with a dark hint of wit. His scathing looks into Spanish society always carry the fluttery lightness of a romantic comedy, but still leave the bruises of a tragic war film long after the film has ended. Almodóvar’s most recent work, Pain and Glory (Dolor y gloria), finds him painting a semi-autobiographical romance film of great tragedy. At his most blissful and introspective, Almodóvar brings all of the shine and torture that comes with the territory of this type of filmmaker.
When I describe Pain and Glory as a “semi-autobiographical romance film,” I speak in vague terms as the film doesn’t really feature a central love story between two characters, but rather, a love story to the life and struggle that Almodóvar has experienced leading to a torturous breakthrough of great vulnerability. The idea of an auteur making a semi-autobiographical film is enough, in many cases, to make a viewer want to roll their eyes in annoyance, as the masturbatory nature of deeming your own life to be interesting enough to put to film oftentimes carries the weight of an inflated ego and lack of self-awareness. This was a major fear I had going into Pain and Glory, and it’s a fear that was dissuaded almost immediately upon the film’s opening scene, as Almodóvar not only holds an interesting story to be told regarding his own life, but also finds wonder in his muse and subject, Antonio Banderas.
Pain and Glory focuses on Salvador Mallo (Antonio Banderas, playing a fictionalized version of Almodóvar), an aging, flamboyant film director based in Madrid. Plagued by chronic pain following invasive back surgery and a condition that causes him to choke on his own breath, Mallo has not made a film in years due to his condition, sending him into a deep, spiraling depression. When an opportunity arises to participate in a rare public appearance for a Q&A following a screening of his most popular film, Sabor, on its 30th anniversary, Salvador soon makes contact with the film’s star, Alberto Crespo (Asier Etxeandia, playing a fictionalized version of Banderas), to whom he has not spoken since the film’s premiere due to his disappointment in his performance. During this resurgence of friendship, Salvador begins to look back upon his life through his usage of heroin, recollecting on his upbringing in rural Spain with his mother, Jacinta (Penélope Cruz), as well as his experiences with love as a gay man in the 1980s, and his grappling with his current pain and mental instability following his forced retirement.
It’s not really a spoiler to know that Pain and Glory has a somewhat happy ending, as Almodóvar has returned to making films, but there’s such a tender, tragic nature to the film that it brings forth an emotional complexity that even Almodóvar hasn’t been able to hit in his previous films. Of course, the personal nature of Pain and Glory to Almodóvar’s experience as a filmmaker, son, queer individual, and human being definitely contributes to the film’s depth and devastation, but it takes a real artist to remove himself so immensely from the construction of his own life story. There’s a lack of ego involved with Pain and Glory, which borderlines on self-degradation in some sequences in the film, portraying Almodóvar’s inherent nature as the man behind the character on-screen. It’s a beautifully moving and surprisingly entertaining thing to watch a filmmaker do with himself.
This being said, Pain and Glory would be nothing without the strength and vulnerability of Banderas’s powerhouse performance. Banderas, in American film, has been categorized for his machismo star-power, sensual Spanish sex-appeal, and ability to make fun of himself as an actor, none of which are on display here. This is Banderas at his quietest moment as an artist, and it’s a performance that truly does feel 30 years in the making. Much like, but also completely different from, Wesley Snipes’s performance in Dolemite is My Name, Banderas thrives in this performance which allows him to let go of his hyper-masculine and occasionally campy image to create something far more introspective and emotionally leveling. This is a performance that lets him portray a flamboyant subject quietly, rather a quiet subject flamboyantly. It’s a unique and daring performance for the star and it brings him into a likably frustrating character that you somehow want to hug and slap at the same time.
One thing that Almodóvar always brings to his films, regardless of their content, is sensuality. It’s almost a stereotype of Spanish cinema, yet it’s one which Almodóvar has mastered with such colorful precision that it’s impossible to refute its power in his hands. He has a way of shooting subjects that feels intimate, even in scenes lacking any sort of sexual connotation. He brings a closeness to the table in a way that doesn’t always have to equate to sex, but rather to that of human connection. It’s a connection that we don’t get to experience in American cinema very often due to our predilection with sexuality and how intensely it pervades, yet plagues our culture.
Everyone loves hyping up the up-and-coming auteurs of cinema à la Damien Chazelle, Robert Eggers, Greta Gerwig, James Gray, etc., but I’d argue that there are classic auteurs still making insanely exciting films at advanced stages in their career. This is a point that is no more apparent than in Almodóvar’s Pain and Glory, a quietly retrospective piece about the elements that made Almodóvar into the man he is today, the one behind the camera for a film such as this. It’s by far his most intimate and personal film to date and, if I should be so flippant, perhaps his best film to date. If Almodóvar were to retire with Pain and Glory, it would be a valiant send-off to one of the finest filmmakers of his time, with a pitch-perfect final shot that could encapsulate over 30 years of filmmaking prowess into one single camera move. Luckily, given the message sent in said closing scene, I have a feeling we haven’t seen the last of Almodóvar, not by a long shot. If Pain and Glory, in any regard, represents the scale and caliber of film that Almodóvar is to continue to make, then let’s go, and let’s start soon.
In select theaters beginning October 4th, 2019.
Final Score: 5 out of 5.