Making an autobiographical film about a director’s life can be a tricky task. Get it wrong and it comes across as a self-absorbed exercise in navel-gazing. But get it right and you have something wonderful, like Pedro Almodóvar’s Pain and Glory.
Set in Spain, this film centres on the “fictional” life of Salvador Mello. Through a series of flash-backs, Almodóvar (for whom this film operates as a thinly veiled semi-autobiographical drama) fleshes out Salvador’s formative years at the hands of his impoverished mother (played by Penelope Cruz), his absent father, and the sexual awakenings of the house help. Fast forward to the present and Salvador is now a successful but creatively stifled film-maker, who suffers from numerous ailments and is struggling to unite his past with the present. But through a series of coincidental reconnections, his past is thrust upon him. There is a hint of Fellini’s 8 1/2, or even Cuarón’s more recent Roma in the self-confessional nature of Almodóvar’s sideways glance at his own life and the people who influenced him.
Almodóvar collaborator Antonio Banderas gives an exceptionally soul-searching performance as Salvador, one of intensely focussed restraint as an internalised individual who ruminates on his past life. He is a picture of contradictions, with mournful eyes that betray his smooth image of studied unkemptness. At one point Salvador exclaims to a colleague “The one who cries is not a better actor than the one who struggles to hold back tears”— advice that Banderas takes on board in one heart-wrenching scene that sums up the pain and glory of Salvador’s life. Indeed, Banderas’ remarkably nuanced performance does plenty of this film’s heavy-lifting and elevates it into something quite sublime.
But far from solely a Banderas masterclass, Almodóvar’s distinctive flavour is evident throughout. Although at the restrained end of his oeuvre, Pain and Glory is still a visually compelling work with a rich colour palette and some subtle formal flourishes that are wall-hangingly beautiful. Certainly, Pain and Glory’s thought-provoking final shot will have your post-viewing tongues wagging while you sip on your Tempranillo.