Back and Forth
by Jeff Reichert

Pain and Glory
Dir. Pedro Almodóvar, Spain, Sony Pictures Classics

The possibilities and pitfalls of autofiction are on full display in Pain and Glory, the 21st feature from Almodóvar, one of the few living international filmmakers popular enough to be broadly recognizable by his last name alone. In his new film he deploys a rejuvenated Antonio Banderas to play Salvador Mallo, a gay, Madrid-based filmmaker who first earned fame in the ’80s with a series of taboo-tweaking, sexually provocative works, but who is now well past the threshold of his later years and, with a hefty body of work behind him, suffering from twinned crises of failing health and vanished creativity. Yes, this is a loose approximation of the Almodóvar we’ve come to know and enjoy, and if these broad outlines (and Salvador’s spiky gray hair and scruff) didn’t make the connection obvious, look for how the poster for Mallo’s breakout film Sabor prominently features a set of luscious red lips à la the artwork for Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown.

We first meet Salvador submerged in a swimming pool, floating, with his eyes closed. After suffering through a lifetime of untreated maladies and minor ailments that led eventually to medications and surgeries (all of which is relayed to the viewer via a puckish early-film animation), being weightless is about the only way he can feel no pain. Exiting the sports club he runs into a familiar actress of his vintage and uses the opportunity of their impromptu awkward lunch to ask her about the whereabouts of Alberto, the lead actor from Sabor with whom he fell out prior to the premiere of the film. The occasion for the query is amusing: an anniversary screening of the restored version of Sabor at a local cinématheque. Almodóvar here treads perilously close to territory trademarked by Hong Sang-soo: the loneliness of the mid/late-career filmmaker.

Salvador’s star, Alberto Crespo (Asier Etxeandia, a newcomer to the Almodóvar cinematic universe), is younger and punkier than his pastel polo-clad director, his fingers covered in rings, his hair long and stringy. Salvador shows up on his doorstep to convince the actor to attend the screening, but their meeting detours, surprisingly, into the two men smoking heroin together out of a piece of folded tinfoil. Alberto is a longtime user, but this is Salvador’s first time. His ongoing and expanding dalliance with chasing the dragon proceeds in episodic fashion from him occasionally dabbling with Alberto to actively seeking the drug out himself, and provides tension in an often baggy, meandering work. The pair wind up too high to attend the long-planned cinématheque screening, calling in for the Q&A; Salvador’s newfound addiction finds a darker reality when he attempts to score on the street.

Smoking heroin often leads the addled director to reminisce about growing up in a small, poor town with his fiercely protective mother, played in these reveries by Penélope Cruz. The flashbacks pick up with the family as mom and son move to join their father in the village of Paterna, one of those mythic-seeming Spanish towns of whitewashed walls and courtyards leading to cavelike underground abodes. Young Salvador (Asier Flores) is a preternaturally bright boy, in possession of a lovely singing voice and a fondness for reading. He’s almost sent to a seminary to better his educational prospects, but declares he doesn’t want to become a priest. In another episode, he begins to tutor the local builder in reading and writing as trade for the workman sprucing up their home. For a time, Pain and Glory will bounce back and forth between the two stories—from the reality of Mallo’s present to this idealized, cinematic version of his youth. As is not uncommon while watching Almodóvar’s cinema, one might wonder for a while where this is all headed.

During one drugged out afternoon, Alberto logs onto Salvador’s computer and begins scanning through the documents on his desktop. One, entitled “The Addiction” catches his attention, and after reading it, a kind of autobiographic confession detailing the events of Salvador’s early life, he determines that he’d be the perfect performer to bring it to the stage as a theatrical monologue. Due to his drug habit and difficult demeanor, the actor is also experiencing something of a career lull, and he believe Salvador’s text could strike magic for him in the same way Sabor did decades earlier. It takes the two falling out and reconciling a second time for Salvador to eventually agree to allow the performance, though he requests his name be swapped for Alberto’s as the author.

In Almodóvar’s universe, simple twists of fate can lead to unexpected outcomes, and the launch of the play connects Salvador to his lost past more forcefully than his heroin-induced daydreams. Much of the play, or at least the portions of the play Almodóvar shows in Pain and Glory, concerns Salvador’s relationship with Federico, a doomed heroin addict in Madrid in the 1980s. Their relationship broke off badly and Salvador never saw Federico again. One night during the run of “The Addiction” Federico (Leonardo Sbaragila) himself turns up at the theater. We don’t know him, but we can assume by Almodóvar’s repeated cuts to his tear-stained face that he bears more than the typical audience relationship to the material. Later that evening, thanks to Alberto’s help, he winds up in Salvador’s apartment, and the pair’s warm rapport, their easy slip into remembrances, their near-brush with sexual rekindling, and their tender goodbye form the core of one of the warmest, wisest movies scenes in ages. The passage so thick with nuance and kindness it’s a film unto itself.

Pain and Glory, with its frequent jumps between times and storytelling modes, often seems stuck in mid-gear, which is perhaps appropriate given the state of Salvador as we meet him, at least until “The Addiction” premieres and opens things up. Even still, it’s a muted and weary work, in which the pop of bright colors in the background—in the past this would have been a signature, show-stopping move—now feels purposefully begrudging. Even Penélope Cruz lustily doing the wash in a river feels meant to evoke some older time, within Salvador’s life and mind and in cinema. Maybe like the many challenging life events described within its runtime, the actual creation of Pain and Glory was a necessary exorcism for the artist to grow and break new ground. I can’t readily recall in the filmmaker’s work a scene so becalmed and assured as the nighttime near-tryst between Salvador and Federico. Nor may there be a scene as truthful and real to the filmmaker’s own life as the one which he dramatizes for the viewer Salvador’s sexual coming of age: one hot afternoon after the builder finishes his work on the boy’s home, he bathes in their common room. The sight of the naked man sends young Salvador into a dead faint.

Though the filmmaker himself may not have developed a late-life heroin habit, it is natural to wonder at the degree to which Salvador’s life, and especially his creative block, mirrors anything Almodóvar has experienced of late (all of Salvador’s physical pain and ailments are based directly on his own experiences). After his explosive ’80s, he entered the 21st century winning multiple Academy Awards and increased international success with seemingly every new film. Yet, it was a shock to realize upon exiting Pain and Glory that it’s been about a decade since I felt compelled to watch a new Almodóvar film. (It’s been even longer since we’ve been treated to an Antonio Banderas this engaged with and energized by his material.) Where the director will go from Pain and Glory is an open question, but it’s clear from the film’s final shot, that he, like Salvador, can never really stop working. Both artists have been writing about themselves all along; it just took them the right moment to share what they’ve found.