Watching a Pedro Almodóvar film comes with certain expectations. Loud, outrageous, female-fronted melodrama has become his trademark, and he works it beautifully. For decades he has managed to walk the fine line between bad taste and camp almost perfectly as in Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown and Volver, and even his few misfires (What Have I Done To Deserve This?) are worth admiring in their transgressive nature.
This is why Pain and Glory, his 21st feature, might surprise even his fervent followers for its sober tone and austere aesthetic. It’s Almodóvar at his most earnest, without the tricks and shock value. Some of his idiosyncrasies are present, and the movie doesn’t lack his usual moments of levity, but even the comedic aspects ring sincere. He hasn’t made it a secret that this is an autobiographical piece of work, and though only he can attest to how personal it is, it definitely reads as honest.
Salvador Mallo is a revered filmmaker who’s seen better days. Crippled by the multiple ailments plaguing his body— illustrated in a stunning animated sequence— he has taken a hiatus from moviemaking, which worsens his depression; without his artistic outlet, he lacks purpose in life. Even the idea of writing a script pains him as he knows that he isn’t capable of shooting it. While in the throes of this creative crisis, he’s informed that an early film of his, one he doesn’t remember fondly, has been restored and will be shown at a cinematheque. He has also been asked to give a Q&A with the star, Alberto Crespo. The problem is, Salvador and Alberto had a very tumultuous working relationship while filming, and haven’t spoken to each other since. After watching the restoration, he’s capable of reconciling with the movie and Alberto’s performance. Thus he seeks out Alberto to convince him to show the film together and rekindle their friendship in the process.
It is through his interactions with Alberto that Salvador develops an addiction to heroin, as this is the only way he’s able to cope with his debilitating pains. The drug opens a box of memories from his childhood, reminiscences of his mother—played wonderfully by Almodóvar’s muse, Penélope Cruz—and the struggles she suffered raising him, his sexual awakening, an illiterate worker that he tutored as a kid, and the repression caused by religion and growing up during Franco’s Spain. These are all themes that have been heavily explored by Almodóvar throughout his career, but this is the first time that he’s put himself in the center of all of them.
Antonio Banderas —serving as Almodóvar’s self-insert— nails every beat of Almodóvar’s mannerisms and forms of speech, though it never reeks of imitation or parody. His turn as Salvador Mallo is fully believable as Banderas disappears into him. This is the role he was born to play, and it’s perhaps not a coincidence that it’s inspired by the man that gave him his break. The supporting cast is impressive as well, but it’s Leonardo Sbaraglia who shines the most in a touching reunion with a past love of Salvador’s life towards the end. The chemistry between him and Banderas is the stuff of dreams, and gives the film its emotional core.
Pain and Glory showcases a side of the auteur that was unfamiliar to its audience before. It finds Almodóvar reckoning with his past, no matter how troubled it is. This in itself might not be of much value to some, especially those that are ambivalent towards him, but it’s pure catnip for those that adore his oeuvre.