Pedro Almodóvar’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 Almodóvar’s life has intruded on his work: as he told me recently in an interview, “I project myself in all my films”; but this one feels more intensely personal than any other. It’s also movingly elegiac.
Antonio Banderas has starred in eight of Almodóvar’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 consequent insomnia have reduced him to a shambling, 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 arthouse cinema has persuaded Sebastian to speak at a screening of his most famous film, and this impending event 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 Sebastian thinks what the hell and decides to join him. The drug briefly obliterates his pain, and drags him back to a rural childhood dominated by his formidably resourceful mother Jacinta (Penelope Cruz).
The young Sebastian is a bright boy, and by the time he’s ten Jacinta has encouraged him to teach illiterate farm hands and workers to read and write. One of them is a plasterer, and as Sebastian 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 Sebastian’s tender and hectoring conversations with the elderly Jacinta (played now by Julieta Serrano), who frets about her son’s health and describes to him in great detail exactly how she wishes to be laid out after her death.
During a brief excursion back to the present, Sebastian has an emotional reunion with Federico (Leonardo Sbaraglia), a former partner from the 80s and the love of his life. This, and a combination of other circumstances, will inspire the director to sort himself out and start writing for the screen again. But in the end Pain and Glory is not that sort of love story, and the person Sebastian seems most purely devoted to is his mother.
Watching Banderas play Sebastian Mallo was, Pedro Almodóvar told me, “not exactly like looking in a mirror, but almost”. By this he doesn’t refer to a physical resemblance - there isn’t any - 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.
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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 channeled into the person of Sebastian, who has allowed himself to be overwhelmed by his physical misfortune. Indeed physical pain is so extant 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 mood. He may have been helped by his own recent health troubles, and early in the film Almodóvar’s camera mournfully scans the length of the actor’s open heart surgery scar.
Ageing, mortality, age and resilience are Almodóvar’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 on Anna Mangani in those 1950s Italian neorealist movies. She’s an earthy, salty powerhouse here, a fiercely loving mother whose loss would indeed be very hard to bear.