Every Almodóvar film is emblematic of the filmmaker’s age: his early work with its cross-dressing, joyful kitsch and burlesque antics (ladies getting horny when they see urine, anyone?) is definitely a young man’s curious take on the world, while more mature masterpieces like Volver (2006) or the director’s own favourite Talk to Her (2002) show Almodóvar at his golden prime. Being his 21st film now – and his most openly autobiographical one to date – Pain and Glory doesn’t show the filmmaker’s skills waning but smooths down some potentially eccentric narrative edges while still using those rich and creamy Almodóvar ingredients we all love.
Grizzled filmmaker Salvador Mallo (Almodóvar veteran Antonio Banderas) is leading a solitary life in his fancy flat full of art bric-a-brac and has somehow accepted his director’s block. His never-ending backaches, headaches, tinnitus and whatnot further deepen his state of constant malaise. If he’s not being nostalgic about his childhood and his feisty mother Jacinta (veteran No.2 Penelope Cruz), he finds reasons to revive his past – like trying to reunite with actor Alberto (Asier Etxeandia), whom he hasn’t seen in 32 years. After hanging out, bunking off a Q&A and trying heroin for the first time with Alberto, Salvador’s physical pain and memories become less palpable and his procrastination sprawls out. Even his stalwart manager Mercedes (Nora Navas) doesn’t know what to do – until one of Salvador’s memories turns up at his doorstep in the shape of an unexpected ex-lover (Leonardo Sbaraglia).
As did the director’s 2016 drama Julieta, Pain and Glory strikes a less shrill, contemplative chord. Instead of staging the crumbling glamour of the film world Fellini-style, Almodóvar goes for humane, more peaceful observations of ageing, its pressure on relationships and career (although a pinch of 8 1?2 is clearly there). The film’s dramatic curve shrivels a little and drags on after it reaches what feels like the climax, but a luminous performance by Julieta Serrano as the older version of Salvador’s mother covers a lot of the gaps.
Some moments dip into the soap opera puddle (“I’m sorry I was never the son you wanted”, says Salvador), but they are still framed with characteristically heartfelt dryness. The visuals are, as expected, a banquet for the eyes: Almodóvar and cinematographer José Luis Alcaine use a lush colour palette, textures and shapes to full narrative power – there are bear-shaped watermelon statuettes, emerald velvet sofas, shiny blood-red kitchen cupboards and Salvador’s funky collection of pashmina jumpers (I like the bordeaux one). Alberto Iglesias’ beautiful soundtrack swelling with nervous strings is equally delightful. As its title suggests, this film questions the price of a filmmaker’s so-called glory and zooms in on the pain of the profession: “Filmmaking is very physical work”, Salvador admits, and the inescapable limits of the body-burden shine a crucial light on the unglamorous traces the job leaves. The pashmina jumper can’t hide that.
Pain and Glory is screening at the GFT, Glasgow, 23rd August – 5th September. Following this, the GFT will also launch an Almodóvar screening series in September.