PAIN AND GLORY

Reviewed by GREG KING

Director: Pedro Almodovar

Stars: Antonio Banderas, Penelope Cruz, Asier Etxenadia, Leonardo Sbaragila, Asier Flores, Cesar Vicente, Julieta Serrano, Nora Navas, Cecilia Roth.

Antonio Banderas and Asier Etxeandia in Dolor y gloria (2019)

Queer iconoclastic auteur Pedro Almodovar gives us one of his most personal films to date with the semi-autobiographical Pain And Glory, which spans some five decades and gives us insights into the flamboyant director’s own personality and his creative processes. Almodovar has recently turned 70, and is obviously in a more reflective mood here. This is something of a passion project for the director rather than a vanity piece.

Long-time collaborator Antonio Banderas plays Almodovar’s fictional alter ego here, Salvador Mallo, a veteran filmmaker who is afflicted with a sore back, migraines and an addiction to painkillers, all of which has affected his ability to continue filming. He feels that life has no meaning and that he is alone in the world. He spends most of his time laying around the house and reflecting on his youthful past and achievements. Through a series of flashbacks we are taken back to his impoverished childhood, where he was raised by his mother Jacinta (Penelope Cruz, another Almodovar regular) in the small town of Valencia. He developed an early love for film, which shaped his life.

The Madrid cinematheque is having a special screening of a restored print of his debut film Sabor, from 1980, and he is invited to attend a Q&A session following the screening, alongside Alberto (Asier Etxenadia), the film’s star. Nearly forty years earlier Mallo was highly critical of Alberto’s performance, which he felt was affected by his drug habit, and the two had a falling out. The retrospective screening offers a chance for a reconciliation. Alberto also reads a very personal and autobiographical manuscript that Mallo has been working on, called Addiction, which deals with a love affair that fell apart, and he decides to turn it into a monologue which he performs to great success. The performance also leads to a reunion between Mallo and Frederico (Leonardo Sbaragila), a former lover. And these events lead to a break through in his writer’s block, allowing him to create First Desire, his first new film in quite some time.

A fanciful blend of fact and fiction, Pain And Glory is the third chapter of an unofficial trilogy from Almodovar, which includes Law Of Desire and Bad Education, both of which focused on the formative experiences of male filmmakers. The film is suffused with many of the director’s idiosyncratic touches, including the rich colour palette and stylistic flourishes and his obsession with cinema. And it explores many familiar themes including sexuality, desire, the creative process, fame, the transformative power of art, cinema, relationships, family, his relationship with his mother, and the past.

Almodovar takes us through a roller coaster of emotions, from the highs to the lows over the course of Mallo’s life. The material is also liberally sprinkled with moments of laugh out loud humour and bittersweet moments. It has been nicely shot by regular cinematographer Jose Luis Alcaine.

This is Banderas’ eighth collaboration with the director. Here he delivers one of the best, more nuanced, sensitive and introverted performances of his career as the troubled and complex Mallo, and conveys his pain and hypochondria. Newcomer Asier Flores is also very good as the younger nine-year old Salvador, imbuing the character with a child-like innocence, curiosity and precocious intelligence. Cruz brings gravitas to a relatively small role.

Almodovar is often something of an acquired taste, but this deeply personal film is a must see for fans of the filmmaker.

★★★☆

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