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‘Pain and Glory’: Pedro Almodovar makes moments with meaning

Emotions and eye-popping colors tell the director’s deeply personal story, with Antonio Banderas front and center.

An out-of-work director (Antonio Banderas, right) reconnects with his former leading man (Asier Exteandia) in “Pain and Glory.”
Sony Pictures Classics

It is the 1960s. A priest at a Catholic school asks a promising new student about his tastes in the arts.

“Si, I like the Beatles and cinema,” says the boy, much to the chagrin of the priest.

“Here, we’ll develop your tastes and direct them to less pagan subjects,” he says.

Pedro Almodovar’s beautiful and deeply personal “Pain and Glory” is filled with perfect little moments like that — moments that make us smile, moments that make us choke up a little, moments that resonate.

Moments popping with gorgeous, vibrant colors. (I can’t recall the last time I saw so many striking shades of red.) Almodovar’s stylized and meta slice of self-representation is as visually stunning as it is emotionally effective.

Antonio Banderas delivers what might just be the performance of his career as Salvador Mallo, a film director who enjoyed great success decades ago but hasn’t worked in years. Now in his late middle age, Salvador lives alone in Madrid, plagued by so many ailments, from debilitating spinal issues to tinnitus to migraines to excruciating muscle and joint pains to depression and crippling anxiety, we get animated sequences detailing Salvador’s medical history.

Some 32 years ago, during the making of what would become one of Salvador’s signature films, he had a bitter falling-out with his leading man, Alberto (Asier Etxeandia) over Alberto’s heroin-fueled, over-the-top performance. They haven’t spoken since — but with a theater about to show a restored version of the movie, followed by a Q-and-A with Salvador, he reaches out to Alberto.

Like Salvador, Alberto is long past his prime, though he’s still quite popular in certain pockets. (“I don’t understand why they like me so much in Iceland,” he notes.) He’s still doing heroin, which Salvador has never tried — until now.

Highly questionable decision, Salvador.

As Salvador and Alberto hash out their grievances, and Salvador tends to his dying, prickly mother (Julieta Serrano), who tells Salvador, “You [were never] a good son,” we occasionally flash back to Salvador’s childhood in the provincial, working-class village of Valencia in the 1960s, with Asier Flores doing fine work as young Salvador, and Penelope Cruz (like Banderas, an Almodovar mainstay) turning in a nomination-quality performance as his mother. She’s filled with fierce, protective love for her gifted son and is determined to do everything to help him reach his potential, but she’s also prone to indulging in her martyr complex and railing against one injustice or another. (Not that some of her gripes aren’t quite legitimate).

“Pain and Glory” is filled with memorable observations, as when Alberto says, “Addiction is slavery,” or when a character notes, “Maybe love can move mountains. But it isn’t enough to save the person you love.” There’s a lovely sequence in the flashback period when young Salvador teaches a local handyman how to read and write. Salvador’s reunion with the love of his life is depicted with tenderness and warmth.

So many small, relatively muted scenes, adding up to a lovely memory piece with some valuable insights about the big picture.