Drama, rated R, 113 minutes, in Spanish, with subtitles, The Screen and Violet Crown, 4 chiles
As he grows older, Pedro Almodóvar seems to be growing more reflective. Pain and Glory is not strictly autobiographical, but it is strewn with deeply personal bread crumbs to lead us through significant passages of the great director’s life.
The central character in this movie is Salvador Mallo, a famous Spanish filmmaker currently sidelined by debilitating back pain and other ailments. He’s played by Antonio Banderas, who won Best Actor at Cannes for this performance.
Almodóvar has built his story around two time periods and three major coincidences. The time frame shifts between memories of his character’s childhood, where his mother is portrayed by Penelope Cruz, and the present, when Julieta Serrano takes over the role. Asier Flores plays Mallo as a boy.
The first of the plot coincidences, a chance meeting with an old friend, winds up putting the veteran director back in touch with Alberto (Asier Etxeandia), the actor who starred in his first movie, and from whom he has since been estranged. Mallo was upset with Alberto’s performance, which was delivered in a downbeat mode fueled by his heroin habit, when the director wanted it on a cocaine high.
This reunion triggers the second, even more unlikely, event. Alberto has turned Mallo on to heroin to ease his pain, and to maintain access to his supply of the drug, Mallo reluctantly gives the actor permission to perform a very personal theatrical monologue he has written, evoking painful memories of his younger days. This leads Mallo to a surprise reunion with Federico (Leonardo Sbaraglia), a former lover he hasn’t seen in many years.
The third coincidence is perhaps the biggest stretch of all. An anonymous watercolor sketch shows up in a Madrid exhibit and appears on the cover of the gallery’s promotional flyer, which falls into Mallo’s hands. It reaches back across the decades to the director’s childhood and brings up the memory of a powerful moment in his awakening sexual identity.
If the mood of this movie is more somber than earlier Almodóvar classics like Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, the color scheme is as riotously rich as ever. The screen is drenched in glorious primary hues that provide a rich contrast to the complexity of the story structure. As he casts an eye back over his life and career, the septuagenarian director may have lost some of his youthful exuberance, but he hasn’t lost his touch.