Pedro Almadóvar’s twenty-first movie is his most openly autobiographical work to date. It’s the story of aging film director, Salvador Mallo (played by Almadóvar’s old muse, Antonio Banderas), who, after years of suffering from various crippling ailments, has lost his way and feels unable to continue with his stellar career.
When his 80s hit movie, Sabor, gets a re-release, he’s asked to attend a screening in Madrid alongside the film’s star, Alberto Crespo (Asier Etxeandia). Salvador hasn’t spoken to his former friend for thirty years, since a spectacular bust-up at the film’s première. But Salvador gamely visits Alberto, who is now in the throes of heroin addiction, and the two men soon end up ‘chasing the dragon’ together. This is the trigger that unleashes a series of childhood memories for Salvador: of his much put-upon mother, Jacinta (played both by Penelope Cruz and Julietta Serrano); of his eccentric schooling at a seminary in Madrid; and of his first sexual awakening, kindled by the presence of a young workman who visits the family home.
Pain and Glory is a gentle and charming film that takes on the tragedy of aging and the illusory nature of creativity with wisdom and panache. While the tone seems to veer alarmingly from scene to scene, and at one point even prompts questions about the wisdom of Almadóvar’s casting decisions, everything is brilliantly resolved in a final shot, where I suddenly realise that the story I am watching is not exactly what I think it is…
It’s the final piece in a complex cinematic puzzle composed by a genuine auteur.
This may not match the bravura delights of Women On the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown or Volver, but it’s nonetheless an assured work from one of contemporary cinema’s most accomplished directors.