While it’s not necessarily a requirement, Pain and Glory is best experienced if viewed after watching a majority of Pedro Almodovar’s eclectic filmography. This film is very much a rumination on a long and storied career and while the movie entertaining and absorbing in its own right, fans of this legendary director will best connect with this emotional throughline.
Part of that context, of course, is that Almodovar is one of the most celebrated Spanish directors working today and one of the most prolific queer filmmakers of all time, having found success with critics, audiences, and the Academy. This film appears to grapple with the status that he’s earned as a filmmaker and where he can go from here, along with the relationships that inspire him and the regrets he’s had both personally and professionally. How close is Pain and Glory to Almodovar’s real life? We’ll never know for sure, of course. But, as a meta-narrative, it is awfully compelling.
This film stars frequent Almodovar muse, Antonio Banderas, who steps into the part of Salvador Mallo, a world famous director with a serious creative block. Lately, he’s been flashing back to his childhood for inspiration, remembering how his hard-working mother (Penelope Cruz) forced him to tutor their hunky neighbor (César Vicente) to make ends meet. Meanwhile, the anniversary of one of his most beloved films is approaching, and a local arthouse theater is trying to arrange a retrospective screening. The problem? Salvador has been feuding with the film’s lead (Asier Etxeandia) for years. Further complicating matters is the fact that Salvador’s former lover (Leonardo Sbargalia) is back in town. And to top it all off, Salvador is waiting for the results of a medical test to confirm whether or not he’s dying.
Clearly, there’s a lot going on here. The above paragraph doesn’t even mention all of the story threads, and some of the storylines are left under-explored. For example, Salvador begins experimenting with crystal meth, even becoming somewhat addicted for a stretch of the movie’s runtime. On one hand, this arc leads to the movie’s funniest scene. On the other, it begins and ends with minimal fanfare—which makes it feel like nothing more than a random idea that couldn’t organically be worked into the story. This story structure also leaves some actors with nothing to do, including the wonderful Celia Roth, who previously delivered a stunning performance in Almodovar’s All About My Mother. Here, she plays Salvador’s caretaker, and while she’s consistently good in the part, her character feels wasted and she’s never given the chance to truly display her talent. Furthermore, this scatterbrained plot holds the audience at a distance for long stretches of runtime, specifically in the film’s first third.
And yet, the moments that Almodovar focuses his narrative are quietly stunning and rich with emotion. The flashbacks to Salvador’s childhood are so brilliantly directed that they could almost stand apart as a terrific short film. Almodovar takes a young boy’s coming of age narrative and filters it through a queer male gaze, eventually ramping up to a final moment that’s equal parts funny and cathartic. Asier Flores, who plays the adolescent version of Salvador, delivers an incredibly natural performance that feels authentically childlike yet still manages to tap into the very complicated emotions that Almodovar wants to deal with. And while Penelope Cruz’s appearances are brief, she does an incredible amount of work to make her character feel totally lived in and sympathetic. It’s a very strong performance, and further proof that her best work is done with Almodovar.
The other clear highlight in this film, from a storytelling perspective at least, is the complicated relationship between Salvador and his former partner, who has since gone on to marry a woman. They only share the screen once, but it’s a very well written scene that, like the coming of age flashbacks, almost stands on its own. Almodovar taps into the profound sadness of their relationship, showing how queer relationships can sometimes be molded, or altogether destroyed, by social forces completely out of the lovers’ control. But there’s beauty there too, and both Banderas and Sbargalia exhibit incredible sexual chemistry that makes them believably feel like a former couple. In this moment, Almodovar throws away the melodramatic tendencies that typically define his films and are certainly pleasant throughout Pain and Glory. This is not about Salvador, the filmmaker and public persona. It’s about Salvador, the lonely gay man, and it’s a really wonderful moment that makes this yet another essential queer narrative in Almodovar’s filmography.
But perhaps that’s the (admittedly minor) problem with Pain and Glory: its best moments feel separated from the film as a whole. Salvador’s volatile relationship with his former friend and actor is interesting, and it’s certainly never bad, but it never really goes anywhere. In its final moments, Almodovar pulls a slight trick on the audience that makes the film’s thesis statement clear and leads to a truly great ending. But, when you consider the thematic implications of that ending, the subplots that don’t quite work feel all the more irrelevant.
The real topic of conversation around Pain and Glory, however, is not where it fits into Almodovar’s filmography but, instead, whether or not Antonio Banderas will earn his first Oscar nomination for the part. After all, Almodovar is something of an Academy favorite and even earned Penelope Cruz her first Oscar nomination for Volver in 2006. And while he’s mostly known for Zorro and Spy Kids in America, Almodovar has afforded Banderas the chance to play a variety of roles: a somewhat nerdy comedic straight man (Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown), a sexual deviant (Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!), and even a mad scientist (The Skin I Live In). This is Banderas at his most natural—and maybe his best.
As Salvador, Banderas is subtle throughout much of the film. He’s not really afforded any dramatic scenes that scream, “Oscar reel,” and his biggest monologue is mostly performed in voiceover. But the strength of his work here sneaks up on you. By the halfway point, you come to realize that Banderas has effectively shed his star image from Hollywood and the many different personas that Almodovar has thrown his way before. He has completely disappeared into this complicated character, and the sincerity in his many dramatic moments is achingly believable. It’s tough to say whether or not he’ll actually be named on nomination morning, but this is absolutely a performance the Academy should consider.
Fans of Almodovar will absolutely check out Pain and Glory and will likely feel deeply rewarded by the experience. This is a good, albeit flawed, film. But for those who aren’t familiar with his work, let this be an excuse to catch up on his filmography. From the brilliant erotic thriller The Skin I Live In to his beautiful tribute to motherhood, All About My Mother, his voice in cinema is absolutely essential and singular. Pain and Glory, for all its flaws, is a celebration of that voice.