Pain and Glory, now at the New York Film Festival, marks the eighth time Pedro Almodovar and Antonio Banderas have worked together, in a long collaboration that began in the 1980s, at the beginning of both their careers. That relationship informs Pain and Glory‘s narrative, as Banderas creates a character modeled, in part, on his friend, and Almodovar uses personal experiences, childhood memories, and the histories of his friends, to craft a film that is his most introspective work to date.
Insofar as it has a central plot, Pain and Glory is about Salvador Mallo (Antonio Banderas), a middle-aged film director in so much physical and psychological pain that he’s been unable, or unwilling, to work for four years. The story opens with Mallo contacting his old friend, actor Alberto Crespo (Asier Etxeandia), with a proposition: the last film they made together, Sabor, has been remastered and the theater would like them to attend a screening for a Q&A. Mallo and Alberto fell out before the premiere of Sabor over Alberto’s performance in the film, but Mallo wants to make it up. Reconnection with Alberto leads Mallo to interrogate his past, including flashbacks to formative moments in his childhood, when he lived in a whitewashed cave with his father (Raúl Arévalo) and mother (Penelope Cruz), as he tries to find a way to either remove himself from pain, or find his way through it to make art again.
Pain and Glory is a remarkably subdued film from a director best known for the extremity of his narratives, both visually and thematically. There are Almodovar’s usual, meticulous color schemes, with lush reds and yellows contrasting with softer beiges and browns, but they are not supplemented by the melodrama so typical of his films. Instead, Pain and Glory turns inward as a rumination on an artist struggling to make art or to even have the will to do it. Mallo’s block against making new films or writing new scripts is as much about his fear of pain as it is about the pain he’s actually in.
It’s tempting to read Pain and Glory as an Almodovar confessional, and there’s no doubt that the director/screenwriter deliberately folded pieces of his life into the narrative and into the central character. But that also does a disservice to the film, and to Banderas’s performance. Rather, Pain and Glory is a great director’s rumination on the act of making art in itself – what stops an artist from working, and how to rediscover the glory of filmmaking. It is about the origins of art, which, in this case, are also inextricable from sexuality and from the personal, and how pain can both transfuse into art and hobble it. Mallo’s struggle is to control his pain, but he also fears that, having controlled the pain, he will find that he’s no longer able to create art.
The film centralizes Banderas, whose long-standing friendship with Almodovar and presence in many of his films lends depth and texture to his performance as a semi-surrogate. But he is not just playing a “version” of the director, rather imbuing Mallo with unique characterization, as he navigates thorny personal relationships past and present and imbibes various forms of narcotics (including, yes, treating cinema itself as a drug). Banderas’s good looks have both mellowed and hardened – no longer the beautiful young man of Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, his face and body language have gained complexity and character, and his performance as Mallo should earn him some Academy recognition. This is not a “star” turn, in the sense that it contains no grand flights of histrionics, nor does it function to burgeon Banderas’s ego (or Almodovar’s, for that matter). It is an instance of an actor wholly and subtly occupying a character, of finding the pleasant melancholy in nostalgia, past desire, and memory, and the pain that goes with it, and of how to turn that pain, and glory, into art.
Pain and Glory may disappoint those who expect extremity from Almodovar, but it is also probably his most complex and finest film in recent years, a meditation on pain and art that is relatively shorn of ego without disregarding its relationship to the director’s past. Plenty of directors and screenwriters have attempted to translate their personal histories to the screen, with greater and lesser success. Last year saw the excellent, but at times overly nostalgic, Roma translate Alfonso Cuaron’s childhood memories to cinema. Directors like Fellini, Truffaut, and Godard made personal biography their stock-in-trade. Almodovar certainly deserves to stand with those giants, but Pain and Glory is not an exercise in ego nor self-immolation for the sake of cinema. It is more than Pedro Almodovar’s 8½…it’s his Pain and Glory.