Reflective films about filmmakers are a trend from Bob Fosse to Federico Fellini. Now, Pedro Almodóvar does his own take on the form with the touching ‘Pain and Glory’ and Antonio Banderas’ sublime performance
About twenty minutes after walking away from Pain and Glory, I laughed out loud. I’d realized that behind the scenes, the real Pedro Almodóvar directed Antonio Banderas on how to be a fake Pedro Almodóvar in a scene where he directs someone else on how to be a fictional version of the fictional version of Pedro Almodóvar, with that character likely channeling Antonio Banderas. It’s a comedic and thrilling example of what is at a point in the film called “Autofiction,” a retelling of events that hit very close to home. But filmmakers have made autofiction for years. What Banderas and Almodóvar accomplish here is something special.
Pain and Glory is, technically, the story of a filmmaker named Salvador Mallo as he faces retirement. Salva has been dealing with chronic pain for years, but it has gotten to the point where he chooses instead to rescind into forced exile from filmmaking. But when we meet Salva, he is in a different state. Floating under the surface of a pool, he is free from pain, able to think of his mother and times of bliss. He flashes back to a happy childhood. He smiles and breaks the surface of the pool. The water breaks and we continue on into the rest of the film, Salva’s pain and struggles taking over his life. But for a brief moment, he is free.
Eventually, freedom from his chronic illnesses comes from drugs and from conflict and from addiction and memory and more places. But it is constant pain. We see glimpses of who he likely was before, not simply in flashbacks but in moments of giddiness such as a telephone-delivered Q&A or as he gets a coffee with a former actress of his. But the Q&A is about his golden years, and the impromptu meeting centers on two people (the actress played by Almodóvar regular Cecilia Roth) as they talk about how old they are. The pain and glory are all that Salva can think about, all that he has to worry about. His best of times are in the past, and his worst of times ongoing.
From this Salva finds himself chasing old glory and fighting pain, reuniting with old friends and taking on addictions to combat his injuries. He abuses those who care about him, including manager Mercedes (whose ongoing divorce is completely unknown to Salva) and maid Maya, and friendships have lapsed long ago. Even the child version of Salvador was isolated, but those moments of happiness were surrounded by times of strife, as the mother (Penelope Cruz) did what she could for her son. Her son’s talents and brilliance are objects of pride but they carry costs. Because everything has a cost at the end of the day.
These personal costs are what have inspired Almodóvar to make this film, a very personal autofiction akin to 8 1⁄2 but with a personal twist. Almodóvar is happy to fictionalize what is likely a fairly close interpretation of reality, but it is mostly because of how he and Banderas make Salvador into someone worth following that raises Pain and Glory to a great film. Banderas and Almodóvar have now made eight films together, creating one another in the first place. And now today, we have proof of just how deep that relationship goes.
At one point Banderas plays the Almodóvar stand-in as he deals with a slightly younger actor who goes back to Salvador’s earliest films. It feels like a look at an alternate universe where Tie Me Up! Time Me Down! or Matador was the last film between the two of them. But it is the personal relationship and stakes on display that make the film all the more interesting.
With a different actor in the lead role, I am certain that Pain and Glory would be as enjoyable and watchable as any other Almodóvar film. But with this masterful a performance from Banderas, you see the love between two people who treat one another like brothers as they fictionalize their relationship and reality. Something that might be an exaggeration of the truth instead feels like an argument for it.
Pain and Glory feels like a maturing point for the seventy-year-old filmmaker. But Almodóvar holds himself accountable for actions and Banderas gives it his best performance ever. Autofiction is something many “auteurs” eventually find themselves dealing with, but in the cock-eyed world view of Almodóvar, we get something far more special than meets the eye.
Pain and Glory will be released on October 4th from Sony Pictures Classics.