Between Talk To Her, Volver and The Skin I Live In, writer-director Pedro Almodóvar is responsible for some of the 21st century’s most emotionally devastating works of human drama. As a storyteller, Almodóvar is never afraid to go big: His films are essentially soap operas, filled with startling character revelations, familial strife and reconciliatory reunions. But that melodrama is always balanced with a delicate patience that grounds all the heightened conflict in a place that feels utterly real. His movies use music sparingly and often amount to nothing more than great actors having intense, life-altering conversations with one another. He’s Mexico’s answer to Douglas Sirk yet he never entirely gets the recognition he deserves.
Thus, it’s a bit disappointing that Pain & Glory, perhaps his most self-reflective work to date, is only Very Good instead of a triumphant capper to a stunning body of work. Think of this as the director’s version of 8 ½, a near-autobiographical explanation for Almodóvar’s artistic obsessions — namely his mother, addiction and sexuality. As Salvador Mallo, Antonio Banderas (a regular Almodóvar collaborator) is as great as he’s ever been, playing a fictionalized version of the director without ever slipping into vanity. The vulnerability of his performance, however, isn’t quite matched by the screenplay, which continually excuses Mallo’s mistakes as symptoms of his genius.
When we first meet Mallo, at lunch with an actress past her career peak, a few things become immediately clear: He’s old, lonely and stubborn as hell. It’s there that he receives news that one of his early films is getting a restoration at one of Mexico’s most prestigious theatres. The problem is that he and the movie’s star, Alberto Crespo (Asier Etxeandia), are no longer on speaking terms due to Mallo hating his performance despite its universal acclaim. One of Pain & Glory’s early scenes details their reunion, which begins with the two being weary of one another’s intentions and ends with them laughing on the couch while smoking a tinfoil slab of heroin. The sequence captures a crucial aspect of estranged friendships and how a genuine connection between two people can outlast petty differences.
It’s heavily implied that all of this is inspired by the real-life relationship between Banderas and Almodóvar, but that relationship isn’t the film’s main focus. Pain & Glory is also structured by intermittent flashbacks to Mallo’s childhood, during which he lived in poverty with his nevertheless strong mother, portrayed by the ageless and incomparable Penélope Cruz. These flashbacks are among the strongest moments in the movie, almost entirely carried by Cruz’s performance as a mother who’s strict out of financial necessity but also empathetic.
Where Pain & Glory stumbles is in its last act, which is powerful in spite of the pat excuses it gives its character. Without spoiling anything, Mallo eventually reunites with a former boyfriend, whom he pushed away in a breakup that remains the Biggest Mistake of His Life. The way in which this conflict is resolved comes across as uncharacteristically forgiving of a character whose depiction previously felt unflinching. It more or less boils down to the fact that artistic genius doesn’t leave room for the most important people in your life. Sure, but that doesn’t excuse being an asshole.
By the end, Pain & Glory is worthwhile because, well, it’s an Almodóvar film. All of his trademarks are here, but it’s also not the quintessential career retrospective he deserves.