Pain and Glory

(2019) *** 1/2 R
113 min. Sony Pictures Classics. Director: Pedro Almodovar. Cast: Antonio Banderas, Penelope Cruz, Asier Etxeandia, Leonardo Sbaraglia, Nora Navas, Julieta Serrano.

/content/films/5182/1.jpgFor forty years, Spanish filmmaker Pedro Almodóvar has made feature films with distinctive flair: literally and figuratively colorful, witty, sexy and sex-positive, and deeply personal in style and substance. At home and abroad, the writer-director has embodied the post-Franco hedonistic freedom of La Movida Madrileña (“the Madrid scene”) that coincided perfectly with his rise. Almodóvar’s latest, the semi-autobiographical Pain and Glory (Dolor y gloria), finds the filmmaker contemplating his own creation as a man and an artist.

Although it has its amusements, Pain and Glory mostly finds Almodóvar, now 70, in his contemplative mode. Appearing in his eighth Almodóvar film, Antonio Banderas portrays a thinly veiled version of the filmmaker. As celebrated Spanish filmmaker Salvador Mallo, Banderas wears Almodóvar’s clothes and frizzy white hairstyle, and putters around an apartment dressed with borrowed décor from Almodóvar’s own home. Mallo finds himself in a funk. Suffering from a number of painful physical and psychological ailments (itemized in an animated monologue), Mallo has drifted into self-imposed retirement.

Things begin to change when a local repertory cinema programs his film “Sabor” and requests his appearance at a post-screening Q&A. Long estranged from the film’s leading man Alberto Crespo (Asier Etxeandia), Mallo finds himself compelled to seek out his former collaborator and bury the hatchet. He finds Crespo—styled in long hair, goatee, tattoos, jewelry, denim, and leather that invite comparison to Johnny Depp—to be a functional heroin addict, and recognizing an out from his pain, Mallo asks to join Crespo in a smoke.

“These late discoveries are the worst,” Crespo warns him. It’s a warning that may just as well apply to Mallo’s late-in-life reflections on his childhood with a loving but judgmental mother (Penélope Cruz, in her sixth Almodóvar film), his prime spent with long-lost love Federico (Leonardo Sbaraglia), and his current state of despondency. “Without filming, my life is meaningless,” he muses. “But that’s how things are.” Pain and Glory elegantly slip-slides backwards and forwards in time to illustrate these “late discoveries,” which are memories but also, in a real sense, the stories Mallo tells himself.

Especially in recent years, Almodóvar has become a master of inward-looking “meta” intertextuality. Federico’s story first emerges in a monologue (“The Addiction”) Mallo grudgingly allows Crespo to perform on stage, while another story, “The First Desire,” recalls his literally swoony sexual awakening at age nine in the company of a construction worker (César Vicente) he teaches to read. Both of these stories have been in Almodóvar’s drawer, and he has noted how Pain and Glory forms a thematic trilogy with his earlier films Law of Desire (1987) and Bad Education (2004). “The Addiction” also recounts Almodóvar’s love affair with movies and movie stars, illustrated by clips of Marilyn Monroe in Niagara and Warren Beatty in Splendor in the Grass.

For all of his stylistic skills—that arresting use of bold colors, his capacity for campy humor and kitschy design—it is this playful, poignant, personal control of narrative that has grown Almodóvar into such an affecting, mature storyteller. Above all, Pain and Glory plays as a poetic remembrance of things past, a reconciliation of self, powerfully capturing the emotional essence of keenly formative experiences and deep loves.

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