So many of Pedro Almodóvar’s best films have been autobiographical that I hesitate to criticize this one for oversharing, but that’s how I felt at first. The filmmaker even chronicles his medical issues in some detail. I would never criticize a great artist for being personal in his work, but at times Pain and Glory made me feel downright uncomfortable. Yet it has remained with me since I saw it several weeks ago. It’s rare to find a film with that kind of staying power.
Antonio Banderas is perfectly cast as Almodóvar’s alter ego Salvador, a filmmaker who has lost the will to create. He suffers so much pain that he doesn’t think he can direct another movie and doesn’t want to write anything he can’t direct. Having agreed to introduce a film he made thirty years ago at the local cinemathèque, he reaches out to its leading actor, who he hasn’t spoken to since they quarreled decades ago. The actor reluctantly welcomes Salvador into his home and offers him heroin, which the director takes to immediately. He soon becomes dependent on the drug, and continues to rely on it as he encounters prominent figures from his recent and distant past.
The most vivid episodes are flashbacks to the director’s youth, with a radiant Penélope Cruz as his mother and Asier Flores as her precocious son. These adoring vignettes stand out in sharp relief from the climactic scenes where Salvador engages his elderly mother in candid conversation. These moments are so achingly real that I felt like I was eavesdropping on a conversation I had no business hearing.
That’s Almodóvar for you. In interviews he has tried to distance himself from the character of Salvador, declaring that he and Pedro are not one and the same. Yet he has also said, “My life has indirectly found its way into every picture I’ve made, but Pain and Glory is the most representative of me. I have deposited in it everything that I own: my furniture, my paintings, my clothes, my intimacy, a few ghosts, my childhood memories, and my need to carry on making films as my only way of life.”
The gifted writer-director strikes a Fellini-esque pose as he takes us on this journey through his life, intermingling memories both happy and poignant. I may have felt some discomfort at his candor but he knows how to burrow into my consciousness. Ultimately I must throw off any misgivings that remain and bow to a true master.