Pedro Almodóvar’s latest work “Pain and Glory”, which was Spain’s official submission to Best International Film Oscar in last year, is a somber but undeniably poignant exploration of that fascinating interaction between life and art. I must confess that I really have no idea on how much autobiographical the movie is as another movie clearly influenced by Federico Fellini’s great film “8 1/2” (1963), but I can clearly discern that Almodóvar is willing to go deep into personal areas here along with his dependable leading actor, and the overall result is simultaneously touching and tantalizing to say the least.
The hero of the film is a middle-aged filmmaker named Salvador Mallo (Antonio Banderas), and he phlegmatically describes to us on how his life and career have felt like reaching to a dead end during recent several years. There was a time when he was quite busy and productive as directing a series of notable works and moving here and there around the world, but he is now in a sort of cross between slump and retirement as getting older day by day, and the pains from several chronic illnesses including his problematic vertebrae frequently remind him of the increasing chance of his mortality.
And then there comes a small unexpected change into Mallo’s melancholic daily life. One of his early films, which was incidentally a career breakthrough for both him and his leading actor Alberto Crespo (Asier Etxeandia), happens to be recently restored, and he is asked to attend its screening and the following Q&A session along with Crespo, to whom he has been distant for many years due to their big conflict on the set. He was not very satisfied at all with how Crespo acted his character during the shooting of the film, and it goes without saying that he still has some grudge against Crespo, even though he regards Crespo’s performance in that film less unfavorably at present.
Anyway, Mallo decides to approach to Crespo as putting aside the longtime grudge between them, and he and Crespo come to have a moment of reconciliation despite the initial awkwardness between them. When Crespo later offers heroin, Mallo does not say no because it looks like a better alternative to his painkillers, and the mood accordingly becomes more relaxed than before as they become high together.
While Mallo subsequently gets himself addicted to heroin more, his foggy mind comes to reflect more on his past, and we get a series of flashback scenes which provide some glimpses into his childhood years in some poor rural village. While his father was frequently absent, his mother was always someone onto which he could hold, and this strong woman did not hesitate at all when he got an opportunity for getting out of their shabby world and then living a better life, though he did not like much being separated from his dear mother.
Leisurely strolling along the episodic moments generated from its two main narratives, Almodóvar’s screenplay occasionally surprises us. You may not be surprised much by what occurs between Mallo and Crespo not long after the screening of the restored version of their film, but then the movie unexpectedly changes its direction as Mallo later allows Crespo to perform an one-man play based on what he recently wrote in private. Although it is apparent that Almodóvar is virtually speaking directly to us during the following performance scene, this moment is skillfully handled with enough honesty and sincerity accompanied with a bit of style and mood, and it leads to a richly emotional scene between Mallo and a certain crucial character in the film. As they calmly talked with each other in private, their shared painful memories of past feel palpable to us, and you will admire how the movie deftly glides along a broad range of emotional spectrum under Almodóvar’s restrained but masterful direction.
The movie subtly and gradually accumulates narrative momentum as Mallo’s artistic mind is stimulated and energized by his emotional journey between past and present, and then it eventually culminates to a moment when a certain plain work of art happens to awaken his memory of an incident which is the origin of his sexual identity and artistic sensibility. Like the filmmaker hero of “8 1/2”, he comes to realize the importance of going back to his origin, and what follows next is a sublime example of how art and life can interact and enhance each other.
Almodóvar his crew members including cinematographer José Luis Alcaine and composer Alberto Iglesias did a commendable job of engaging and fascinating us via mood and details, and Antonio Banderas, who deservedly won the Best Actor award when the movie was shown at the Cannes Film Festival early in this year, gives what will be regarded as the best work in his entire career. While never reaching for any cheap dramatic effect, Banderas humbly anchors the film with his rich nuanced performance full of personality and humanity, and he is also supported well by Cecilia Roth, Julieta Serrano, Asier Etxeandia, Leonardo Sbaraglia, and Penélope Cruz, who effortlessly exudes earthy grace and beauty as Mallo’s mother during the flashback scenes in the film.
Compared to Almodóvar’s best works such as “All About My Mother” (1999) and “Talk to Her” (2002), “Pain and Glory” is less intense and flamboyant in comparison, but I enjoyed it more than his recent works including “The Skin I live In” (2011) and “Julietta” (2016), which I admired but did not love as much as others. In short, this is another superlative work from Almodóvar, and I assure you that its emotional highlights will linger on your mind for a long time.