Pain and Glory, 2019.
Directed by Pedro Almodovar.
Starring Antonio Banderas, Asier Etxeandia, Penélope Cruz, Leonardo Sbaraglia, César Vicente, Asier Flores, Nora Navas, Julieta Serrano and Raúl Arévalo.
An ageing filmmaker is haunted by some of the ghosts of his past as he prepares for a restored screening of one of his most memorable works.
With the movie world currently busy chatting away about Quentin Tarantino’s cinephiliac summer tentpole Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, there’s a chance that another movie about filmmaking could be lost in the shuffle. Of course, Pedro Almodóvar’s Pain and Glory isn’t really about the film business at all. It’s about an ageing man in a creative rut, who’s forced to reach into his past to find inspiration as his body and mind begin to fail around him.
That man is auteur director Salvador Mallo, played by Antonio Banderas in a performance that won him the Best Actor prize at Cannes earlier in the year. He admits in an early montage – realised via some stylish animation and an impish voiceover – that he has numerous physical ailments, as well as suffering from depression and anxiety. A chance encounter – one of many littering the film – leads him to reconnect with the leading man of his most famous film – Asier Etxeandia’s pretentious artist Alberto – ahead of a restored screening he has been asked to introduce.
This movie serves largely as a vehicle for Banderas at the peak of his powers. This is a mid-life crisis of an unflinching kind, from an ill-advised sojourn into the world of recreational heroin use to his refusal to see a doctor over his regular choking fits. Salvador is stuck in an artistic rut, but he’s not willing to believe that it might be the past that’s the problem. “Without filming, my life is meaningless,” he says at one point, showing a stunning lack of awareness of how much his loneliness plays a part in his deepening funk.
Throughout the narrative, coincidence presents Salvador with opportunities to grow and mend. Via flashbacks, Almodóvar illuminates the young Salvador’s (Asier Flores) relationship with his mother Jacinta (Penélope Cruz), as well as his sexual awakening through an illiterate handyman (César Vicente) he agrees to teach to read. Flores showcases terrific comic timing as the young Salvador and Cruz does a solid job with what proves to be a sadly rather unmemorable role. Indeed, it’s Julieta Serrano as the older Jacinta who gets the meatier scenes of real consequence.
Salvador is also presented with opportunities to rebuild other elements of his life, from his professional bond with Alberto to his romantic connection with old flame Federico (Leonardo Sbaraglia). He constantly clashes with Alberto – most notably around an authentically awkward post-screening Q&A scene – and it’s this relationship that creates many of the most enjoyably light-footed comic scenes in a film that’s as funny as it is emotional. Banderas excels when it comes to the moments of physical comedy, with his drug-addled method of entering a taxi one of the movie’s highlights.
Pain and Glory is a sprawling, wide-ranging tale that plays with time and flashbacks, moving backwards and forwards through the life of its protagonist. There’s a certain refusal on Almodóvar’s part to allow the narrative to sit still and breathe, which sadly dilutes its impact. The reunion of Banderas and Sbaraglia is the film’s standout sequence, moving from friendly and ever so slightly awkward through to intimate and even sexual. With a simple scene of dialogue, the two performers are able to convey a deep, palpable bond that, although torn apart by time, still exists as a sort of emotional muscle memory.
The film works best when that simplicity is allowed to come to the fore, without the time period trickery and the emotional disconnect it creates. There’s enough flair and joy in even the simplest of Almodóvar’s compositions – stark, vivid primary colours burst from the screen – with the bizarre dichotomy of Salvador’s home – it’s packed with art and creativity, but feels sterile and museum-like – doing more to illustrate the character’s unique predicament than any journey through his prior life.
Pain and Glory is a difficult movie to pin down, pinballing from the subtle to the very unsubtle as swiftly as its timeline deliberately jumbles itself. However, there’s no denying the potency of the performance at its centre, with Banderas delivering what is potentially a career-best masterclass.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★
Tom Beasley is a freelance film journalist and wrestling fan. Follow him on Twitter via @TomJBeasley for movie opinions, wrestling stuff and puns.