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Banderas taps into Pedro's hurt locker

Pain And Glory (16, 113mins) 4/5


Antonio Banderas is superb as Salvador Mallo in Pain And Glory

Antonio Banderas is superb as Salvador Mallo in Pain And Glory

Antonio Banderas is superb as Salvador Mallo in Pain And Glory

Pedro Almodovar's 21st film finds the Spanish director in reflective mood. He turns 70 next month and, in Pain And Glory, seems to look back wistfully on his early years and artistic career. This is not the first time Almodovar's life has intruded on his work, but Pain And Glory is his most intensely personal film to date. It's also movingly elegiac.

Antonio Banderas has starred in eight of Almodovar's films, and the pair were great friends during Madrid's 'Movida' arts renaissance of the 1980s: who better, then, to play Salvador Mallo, an ageing film-maker whose health has blighted his working life.

Tinnitus, headaches, chronic back pain and insomnia have reduced him to a gloomy wreck: he hasn't made a film in years and spends much of his time pondering his distant childhood and cherished memories of his late mother. And when a testy encounter with an old colleague leads to drug-taking, those memories grow more and more intense.

An art-house cinema has persuaded Salvador to speak at a screening of his most famous film, and this encourages him to reach out to its star, Alberto Crespo (Asier Etxeandia), a former friend to whom he hasn't spoken in 30 years. Alberto smokes heroin, and the pain-stricken Salvador thinks what the hell and joins him. The drug dulls his pain and drags him back to a rural childhood dominated by his formidably resourceful mother Jacinta (Penelope Cruz).

The young Salvador is a bright boy, and by the time he's 10, Jacinta has encouraged him to teach illiterate farm hands and workers to read and write. One of them is a plasterer and as Salvador watches him wash the white dust from his naked torso, he has a sexual awakening that will become a source of tension between he and his mother. So too will her plan for him to attend a seminary to further his education.

The most touching memories the heroin rouses, however, are Salvador's tender conversations with the elderly Jacinta (played now by Julieta Serrano), who frets about her son's health and describes to him in great detail how she wishes to be laid out after her death.

During a brief excursion back to the present, Salvador has an emotional reunion with a former lover. This, and a combination of other circumstances, will inspire the director to start writing again. But in the end, Pain And Glory is not that sort of love story, and the person Salvador seems most purely devoted to is his mother.

Watching Banderas play Salvador Mallo was, Pedro Almodovar told me in a recent interview, "not exactly like looking in a mirror, but almost". By this, he doesn't refer to a physical resemblance, but to the intermingling strands of the fictional character's life and his own. Like Mallo, Almodovar was raised in a dusty central Spanish village, taught adults to read and almost became a priest. References to Mallo's films suggest the broad humour and kinky shock tactics of Almodovar's early work: in his later films, the smoke and mirrors have been replaced by sombre, soaring, sometimes painfully evocative dramas. Almodovar himself at one point thought his film career might be prematurely ended by health problems and persistent pain: when he rebounded by making his excellent 2016 melodrama Julieta, he was greeted by a frosty reception in Spain, partly due to his apparently accidental involvement in the Panama Papers tax avoidance scandal.

All of this pain has been channelled into the character of Salvador, who has allowed himself to be overwhelmed by his physical misfortune. Indeed, physical pain is so prevalent in this film that it almost seems like a character in itself, a malign wizard lying in wait to cast its crippling spells. Banderas is superb in this demanding role, which required him to suppress his normal bullish machismo in favour of an altogether more subtle and delicate sensibility. He may have been helped by his own recent health troubles and, early in the film, Almodovar's camera mournfully scans the length of the actor's open heart surgery scar.

Mortality, age and resilience are Almodovar's themes here, together with the redemptive power of art and, of course, love. In Almodovar's films, Penelope Cruz reminds me of Sophia Loren or Anna Magnani in those 1950s Italian neorealist movies. She's an earthy, salty powerhouse here, a fiercely loving mother whose loss would be indeed very hard to bear.

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