Despite the immaculate dress sense, wild salt-and-pepper hair and a certain similarity in their choice of subject matter, Antonio Banderas isn’t portraying movie director Pedro Almodóvar here. But watching Banderas as Salvador Mallo, beloved director of Spanish cinema, you’d be forgiven for making that mistake.
Pain & Glory (Dolor y Gloria), Pedro Almodóvar’s 21st feature, concerns Mallo’s attempts to alleviate his chronic pain, as well as banish the writer’s block that has kept him from work since his mother’s death four years prior. Searching for pain relief, Salvador is turned on to heroin by an actor with whom he worked on his first film, Alberto (Asier Etxeandia), and between doses he returns to memories of his complicated childhood, being raised in poverty by loving mother Jacinta (Penélope Cruz).
While Mallo is indeed inspired by Almodóvar’s own experiences, Pain & Glory isn’t a self-reflexive study of the art of filmmaking, like Fellini’s 8 1/2 or Woody Allen’s Stardust Memories. But neither is Salvador’s profession as a director immaterial: we see him processing his pain and unresolved guilt as inspiration for his work. Locked away in an immaculately appointed apartment, a sanctuary in which Salvador permits himself the control which he doesn’t have over his mind or body, his mind wanders back to long-vanished conflicts and passions. It’s an apt metaphor for the way that we never stop repositioning our relationship with the past, yearning to transcend it.
While much of the plot concerns Salvador’s artistic and sexual awakening in the 1980s, we don’t see it. Instead, prompted by sensory triggers in the present, we’re transported mainly to his early childhood, as a bright student being groomed for the seminary and raised by Jacinta, desperately trying to keep her household together. Correspondingly, images from Salvador’s childhood find resonance in the modern day, in genuinely unexpected and moving ways. There’s a sense of Almodóvar closing a loop here, mining not just his history for his stories, but his present.
Altogether it’s a sensitive and moving depiction of a late-life crisis, with some hard edges. Almodóvar’s depictions of Salvador’s drug use aren’t subtle, or artful; he depicts with disarming frankness the process of smoking heroin. But Antonio Banderas shows how the drug allows Salvador a moment of tranquility and a relief from his chronic pain: it’s great work, and Banderas deeply deserved the Best Actors award at this year’s Cannes Film Festival. Something about Almodóvar’s scripts always brings out the best in his actors: the sense of a genuine truth being told, perhaps.