Pain and Glory


Opening Friday, Nov. 8

Pedro Almodóvar’s Pain and Glory is an auto-fictional exercise in which the director reflects on his work and personal life with subtlety and intimacy, albeit occasionally skimping on honesty.

Departing from the highly crafted dramatism and virtuosity that characterizes his filmmaking, Almodóvar shows us his most austere face with stylistic simplicity, but without sacrificing the emotional intensity of his relationships with loved ones and with cinema. But when it comes to his own self-portrait, the film dwindles. Almodóvar stays overly comfortable and carefully imposes limits on his vulnerability.

Salvador Mallo (Antonio Banderas) is an aging gay filmmaker who is struggling with chronic pain, drug abuse, and long-term creative drought while he reconnects with an old friend, actor Alberto Crespo (Asier Etxeandia), before an honorary screening of a film they made together more than thirty years ago. Their heroin-fueled reconciliation, which is tender and complicit but not exempt from resentment and bursts of antagonism, catalyzes Mallo’s reconnection with an old lover (Leonardo Sbaraglia) whom he met in the radical, fertile Madrid art scene of the 1980s.

Mallo, whose uncanny resemblance to Almodóvar is accentuated by Banderas’s outstanding performance, endures constant doctor visits, isolation, and creative self-doubt. The film carefully weaves the dim, painful present of Mallo’s old age with bright scenes from his childhood: women singing while washing clothes in the river, chocolate-bar sandwiches, outdoor movie theaters that smell like piss, furtive glimpses of other male bodies, a fascination with movie stars, and an even deeper fascination with his own mother (played as a young woman by Penélope Cruz and in her old age by Julieta Serrano), the center that holds both timelines together.

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Pain and Glory is a valuable contribution to the tradition of reflexive filmmaking, adding a personal tone to a canon given to emotional distance and intellectual excess. But the film leaves us wanting more because of its reluctance to deeply explore the least-becoming aspects of the main character’s psyche. Although there is no lack of palpable pain, desire, and regret, in several moments, the director seems to be holding back in order to avoid presenting himself in a too-stark light.

Particularly surprising is that the effects of his fame, his prestigious status, and his cultural power are barely touched upon. It’s as if the stripped-down formal aspects are compensating for psychological regions that the director won’t let us see. In a film with plenty of poignant interpersonal closeness and solid meditations on vital experience and filmmaking, Almodóvar doesn’t exercise the same rigor when examining himself.