Salvador Mallo (Antonio Banderas) is a man with a lot on his mind. He’s a successful filmmaker, an agoraphobic hypochondriac, and a deeply lonely individual. And he’s also Pedro Almodóvar, Pain and Glory’s writer/director. Nothing if not a master of self-deprecation, Almodóvar’s latest unpacks the acclaimed Spanish filmmaker’s neuroses in his signature style, a mix of ironic melodrama and sincere introspection.
This is the story of a man waking up, the process of reentry. The first shot finds the camera tracking in on Salvador, seemingly slumbering underwater in a pool – Pain and Glory documents his exit from this isolating sensory deprivation chamber. He reconnects with Alberto (Asier Etxeandia) an estranged actor from one of his films who he hasn’t seen in 32 years (and picks up a nasty habit along the way). His mind wanders to images of his mother and childhood. He rarely leaves home. Something’s stuck in Salvador’s throat, causing him to spontaneously choke, and maybe even stopping him from writing.
As usual, the auteur weaves together tones and shades of sincerity with ease. But Almodóvar wouldn’t be able to pick himself apart without collaborator Antonio Banderas, who turns in a gentle, touching and all-around superb performance. Just as Leonardo DiCaprio morphed into a pillar of anxiety for Quentin Tarantino earlier this year, Banderas descends into the worries of his director.
It’s a performance that already won Banderas Best Actor at Cannes. The jury made a good call: just as Almodóvar delicately dictates the ironic distance of every moment, Banderas carefully plays Salvador as sympathetic, if a bit ridiculous. But – unlike Leo – he’s not playing a performer, meaning Banderas completely dials back his swaggering screen presence. The result is a man you could imagine once bursting and brimming with confidence, trying to recover something like that self in his old age.
This further complements Pain and Glory’s structure, which sketches out a representation of Salvador’s entire existence. This is a welcome choice for viewers unfamiliar with all of Almodóvar’s oeuvre, although perhaps it’s an obvious step to ensure that this film can stand on its own. Where Tarantino used a moment of flux in American culture to illustrate the baggage of a lifetime, Almodovar’s approach can’t help but feel more intimate.
Aside from the moments when it doesn’t, the soapy, coincidental twists and turns. How much is Almodóvar taking the piss? At a Q&A for Salvador and Alberto’s fictional movie, an audience member asks Salvador if he and Alberto had a falling out around the latter’s performance (the director and actor are attending the event via phone). Banderas plays the moment straight, explaining how his actor’s heroin addiction divided the pair. Suddenly, Alberto grabs Salvador by the lapels, and the two men are having the same fight they had thirty years ago. The score swerves too, and the scene crosses that imagined line: tragedy becomes comedy.
We’re never exploring one relationship or space for too long.
There’s a lot to admire about this style, but the film’s relatively accelerated pace makes it difficult to get too wrapped up in the details. We’re never exploring one relationship or space for too long. Penélope Cruz also re-teams with Almodóvar, playing another subjective portrait of his mother, and her performance is great – if only we got to know her better in the context of this film.
That’s not all: former flames reappear, addictions spike, but nothing lingers. Then again, maybe this is just another way Almodóvar plunges us into his cluttered headspace. At its core, Pain and Glory is an illustration of warring forces in symphony. Tonally, this is nothing new for Almodóvar, but there’s something truly special about the groove he finds with Banderas.