When I had lunch with my father earlier this week, he was complaining about his age. After talking about his limp due to a torn meniscus, he said, “In my mind, I still feel like I did when I was a young man. It’s only my body that has gotten older.” That wisdom and sense of betrayal are central to Pain and Glory, an autobiographical drama from Spanish filmmaker Pedro Almodóvar. He is known for bawdy humor and high melodrama, although there is little of that here. Instead, his sense of understatement leads to plausible, complex characters in heartbreaking situations. This material might be tedious, even unbearable, but it is so carefully observed and acted that watching the film is like a luxury.
Antonio Banderas plays Salvador Mallo, the stand-in for Almodóvar himself. Banderas no longer has the looks of a sex symbol, and with wild salt-and-pepper hair, bears a strong semblance to the director. The film follows Mallo as he struggles with a creative dry spell, reflects on his past, and rekindles with an old lover. There are two framing devices that help make sense of Mallo’s life. One is a series of flashbacks, with Mallo as a boy and Penélope Cruz playing his mother. The other is simpler, the idea that Mallo’s time at home can be restorative. In recent interviews, Almodóvar said that Mallo’s apartment is a faithful recreation of his home. That kind of verisimilitude is unique, and helps us understand the strange choices the character makes.
One of Mallo’s films is being shown in repertory, so he figures it might be a good opportunity to reconnect with Alberto (Asier Etxeandia), the film’s star. The two have been estranged for decades, and they fall into old patterns of master/student. Alberto’s only surprise is that he is still a heroin addict, and due to chronic pain, Mallo is curious to try the drug himself. But Pain and Glory is not a simple story about a man who succumbs to addiction, nor is about an attempt for Mallo to redeem his long lost collaborator. It is more about how, after dormant periods of silence, rekindled relationships can change and surprise us. Their dialogue comes with a weariness, but a sense of longing as well. Their arc resolves in a satisfying way, so that one artist makes room for another.
The cycle of expression, influence, and reconciliation continues elsewhere in Mallo’s life. It’s never clearer than a subplot involving Federico, his former lover. They meet again through pure chance, and their evening together is rich with possibilities and erotic subtext. In another Almodóvar film, perhaps he would have the characters sleep together, but here that would violate his commitment to the interiority of his characters. He realizes their wistful feelings, along with the soft glow of youthful passion, are enough for men who have a lifetime of experience. The film allows the indulgence of one kiss, but it is more passionate than most consummated movie romances.
Almodóvar helped jumpstart Banderas’ career, but in their years apart, Banderas became a Hollywood icon, starring in big-budget thrillers. Now that he’s a bit older and wearier, there is less flamboyance and more wisdom in his acting. As Mallo, Banderas has simply never been better. With every gesture and wince, you can sense the decades of experience that inform it. Almodóvar’s formal restraint helps inform the performance. The color palette is classic Almodóvar: lots of bright, bold colors – red in particular – except that is a grim joke since Mallo’s body keeps failing him. The flashback scenes are livelier, with Cruz as a proud mother who intuits her son’s nature as an intelligent, creative boy. No scene, no matter how typical the set-up, has a traditional payoff. Life is nowhere near that tidy, although our feelings can reflect possibilities that were never realized.
Pain and Glory is the sort of exquisite, quietly observed film that gets its audience to lean forward. There are no wrong notes, and it is a delight to watch a master filmmaker at the height of his powers. There is another subplot where, as a boy, an illiterate handyman helps awaken young Salvador’s interest in art and other men. Although their milieu could not be more different, Pain and Glory has similar notes to Moonlight, another great film. They are both about sensitive gay boys, and how they still have those yearnings even as they grow into men. If the hero of Moonlight was a victim of his circumstances, then the hero of Pain and Glory is a victim of his successes. Salvador Mallo does not feel like himself when he gets older – each indignity to too unspeakable, each conversation too boring – so the only currency in his life are the fleeting moments where the young man in his mind overtakes the ailing shell he lives in. We should all be so lucky.