Pedro Almodóvar is a master of character. Of taking a single figure and dissecting them on screen. We see mothers mourning their sons, a kidnap victim and her relationship with the plastic surgeon keeping her captive. When he places focus on one character, Almodóvar ensures we learn them, inside and out. Pain and Glory, his latest venture is no exception. With a decadent over-abundance of colour and a heart-wrenching story of a tortured artist, ageing and disenchanted with his craft, Pedro Almodóvar continues to prove that he is one of the greats of modern cinema.
Antonio Banderas gives the performance of his career (that also earned him the Best Actor accolade at Cannes) as Salvador Mallo, a film director plagued with debilitating ailments, back pains and a lack of will to work. He seldom leaves his house except, by happenstance, to visit the lead actor of his breakout feature years prior. The premise is to reunite for a remastered anniversary release of their first film, but it is apparent that Salvador has his own agenda for visiting his former leading man. An agenda that leads him spiralling into experimentation, ecstasy and the search for a muse.
Running alongside Salvador’s current predicament are memories of his childhood, particularly of his mother, played by Penélope Cruz, in heroin-induced recollections. Cruz’s performance as a struggling mother to a precocious son is understated and raw. She makes every setback the character encounters resonate with unrivalled emotional gravitas. The back and forth between Cruz and young Salvador, played tremendously by Asier Flores, and paired with Banderas’ character study of the boy later in life is the stand out of the film.
If I were to choose one word to encapsulate this film, it would be coincidence. How everything falls into place by way of “it just so happened”. The film is guided by the chances in Salvador’s life that have changed his direction. These experiences are weaved into his life and throughout the film, fitting together like a puzzle. Each scene explains a facet to Salvador’s being. His tricky relationship with heroin, his first experience with a man, the omnipresent influence of his mother, from the films he makes to the empty spare bedroom in his house. Everything about this character has been meticulously thought through by Almodóvar.
What Almodóvar delivers with Pain and Glory is a wonderful piece of meta-cinema, examining not only his usual themes of motherhood, queer cinema and the complexity of flawed protagonists but also the process of writing and directing itself. A beautiful biography of a tortured soul, seeking to revitalise a life he used to lead.
Words by Jack Roberts