In many ways, Pedro Almodóvar’s Pain and Glory feels like a departure. It’s not that the hothouse melodramas that make up most of his output have resisted personal touches; 2004’s Bad Education was arguably overflowing with them and some of that same subject matter is obliquely revisited here. But Pain and Glory puts such autobiographical elements above scandalous plot turns. Still, worry not, fans of Amodóvar’s color-blocked sets and costumes. Images such as Antonio Banderas sitting in a bold maroon turtleneck in front of verdant floral wallpaper still abound.
To the extent that it has a plot, Pain and Glory‘s kicks off when director Salvador Mallo (Banderas) is invited to endure a Q&A following a restoration of a film he directed 32 years ago. This meager offer leads to him reunifying with the film’s star (Asier Exteanadia), developing a heroin habit and, eventually, revisiting many of his life’s formative events, including flashback featuring his approval-withholding mother (Penélope Cruz) and the first man to inspire his lust (César Vicente).
For a time, Pain and Glory threatens to be overcome with its addiction subplot. In a fruitfully off-throwing gambit, we are barely given the chance to know Salvador as a sober person before he’s either high and loopy or desperate and scrounging. When he tells his doctor, “My life is meaningless without filming,” the addiction to drugs as addiction to work allegory is complete and, just as quickly as it was introduced, over with.
Whether or not Almodóvar himself was ever addicted to heroin is immaterial and uninteresting to me. Pain and Glory‘s autobiographical touches are more rich and more apparent in Banderas’ uncharacterisic but great performance. Tousle-haired and stammering, he approaches Almodóvar’s post-bohemian arthouse allure in ways heretofore unseen from an actor whose sexual icon status exists in large part due to Almodóvar himself. As opposed to broad, coming-of-age hallmarks, minor touches feel more revelatory here, like Salvador watching Argentinian director Lucrecia Martel’s The Holy Girl in the midst of pining for a long-ago lover who has since moved to Argentina.
Almodóvar risks tipping his hand when, late in the film, another character references “autofiction,” the self-same genre to which Pain and Glory belongs. Still, despite coming dangerously close to doing so, the director never resigns himself to Woody Allen-esque navel-gazing. Pain and Glory ultimately stands on its own. It’s as touching, uncompromising and arousing as anything Almodóvar has made, even if it is a departure.