Early on in Pain and Glory, an old acquaintance asks Salvador Mallo (Antonio Banderas), a movie director who has essentially retired himself in late middle age, “If you don’t write or film, what will you do?” “Live, I guess,” he replies, with a whole-body shrug so resigned it’s clear he means almost exactly the opposite.
There may be more pain than glory running through Pedro Almodóvar‘s minor-key melodrama, but it’s the most tender kind; a sort of melancholy memory palace that paints the Spanish auteur’s personal history in gently over-washed layers of past and present — not least in the fact that it stars two of the most famous muses of his nearly-four decade career, Banderas and Penelope Cruz (who appears in flashbacks as Mallo’s prickly, beloved mother).
Salvador, we soon learn, was once the king of a certain kind of sexy Andalusian excess, a filmmaker beloved for cult cinema like Sabor, whose revival occasions a reunion with its erstwhile star Alberto (Asier Etxeandia), from whom he’s been estranged for more than 20 years. For nearly all of that time, Alberto has also been a high-functioning heroin addict; learning that, Salvador, locked in a low-grade depression and racked by various chronic ailments, sees an opportunity: Why couldn’t he just try some too, medicinally?
As the story moves between Salvador’s dream-like childhood — much of it spent at the side of his chronically dissatisfied mother (Cruz) in a rural Spanish village — and his gilded but narrow life in Madrid, a portrait emerges of a man who has lost his way, if not his will to even wake up every day. But one, too, who can’t seem to entirely turn away from his director’s eye, whether he’s gazing at a drug deal gone wrong or a faded watercolor on a gallery wall.
On a visit to Salvador’s cloistered apartment, Alberto finds a draft of an old story and begs to turn it into a one-man play; the production of that project leads to another kind of reunion, and more backward glances, which mostly sums up what passes for plot in Pain and Glory’s impressionistic, gently meandering journey. If the movie’s inward gaze feels too blinkered sometimes, a sort of depressive reflexive autofiction, it’s also mitigated by the inimitable imprint of its creator — a man who still finds moments of singular beauty and sideways humor even in the midst of his very Almodóvar-esque despair.
It’s also hard to imagine the film without Banderas at its center; his Cannes-winning performance isn’t Almodóvar drag, exactly, though he does borrow some of his mannerisms and particular flair for wardrobe; it’s both a fond tribute and its own layered creation, etched in every well-earned line on the actor’s still obscenely handsome face. (The lesser-known — to American audiences at least — Etxeandia and Leonardo Sbaraglia are fantastically vivid in their smaller turns, too.)
In the scheme of Almodóvar’s rich catalogue, Pain is probably too small, too sad, and too obtuse to really recommend as any kind of starting point. For longtime fans, though, it’s a gift; the kind of quiet glory worth waiting a few decades for. B+
(Pain and Glory debuted at the Telluride and Toronto Film Festivals, and will be in limited theatrical release beginning Oct. 4.)