The final shot of Pedro Almodóvar’s achingly beautiful Pain and Glory is the stuff that cinematic perfection is made of. Not only is it gorgeously staged and framed, but there’s a reveal that will take your breath away and put everything you just experienced—the journey of an aging filmmaker coming to terms with his legacy, his relationships, even the body that’s betraying him—into a perspective that cleverly reminds us exactly where we are.
In a career that spans back to the 1970s, Almodóvar has delivered dozens of films that add up to a strikingly impressive portfolio, films that lean into boldness in any number of ways, from colorful production design to strong female characters. Marking his most introspective film to date, the filmmaker takes his own life and career as inspiration for the story of Salvador Mallo, an aging auteur (portrayed by long-time collaborator Antonio Banderas) who’s struggling with a myriad of health issues just as interest in his very first film, Sabor, renews around the anniversary of its release. Reminded of the film’s impact when it first hit screens, Salvador finds himself nostalgic about many things in his life, including the actor who starred in the film (with whom he didn’t get along and has been estranged from in the years since) and his own childhood growing up in poverty as an only child.
Banderas, aging gracefully into his salt-and-pepper hair and rugged features, delivers a career-best performance as a man looking back on his life and what it all adds up to. With back injuries that have required surgery to fuse his spine together, Banderas’s commitment to the physical demands of Salvador’s experiences is exceptional, every movement considered and deliberate on the actor’s part, natural as they come to the character. His physical pain is undeniable (a brief primer early on gives us a rundown of everything he’s endured); Banderas’s performance truly shines when he allows us glimpses of the emotional anguish he navigates on top of it all.
There’s the strained relationship with actor Alberto Crespo (Asier Etxeandia), a friendship rekindled around the renewed interest in the film they made together so many years ago. Crespo has gone on to make a career for himself, even as the urban legend of his estrangement from Salvador lives on. When Salvador shows up on Crespo’s doorstep to invite him to the film’s anniversary screening, there’s the strange familiarity that comes with such reunions—you know so much about this person, and yet know nothing at all. Theirs is a relationship of convenience and opportunity, to be sure, but one where the shared business interests give way to actual camaraderie, dysfunctional as it may be (Crespo, after all, is still a bit of a partier, introducing Salvador to some…interesting…new medications).
Then there’s the surprise reappearance of Federico (Leonardo Sbaraglia), the first person Salvador ever truly loved; a chance encounter puts Federico back in the path of Salvador’s art, which itself leads to an unexpected knock on the filmmaker’s door. Though brief, the reunion between Salvador and Federico may be the most poignant scene in the film, each man finally mature enough to not only acknowledge exactly what their feelings were for each other back then, but wax nostalgic about what might’ve been under different circumstances.
And there’s Salvador’s flashbacks to his boyhood and his doting and attentive mother, Jacinta (another long-time Almodóvar collaborator, Penelope Cruz). Interspersed throughout, we come to learn of their move to a coastal city where his father found the family a small home built into the ground below their feet; of Jacinta’s well-intentioned insistence on sending young Salvador to seminary school; and of an encounter with a local teen he’s tutoring that results in both a simple yet lovely portrait of Salvador but also an awakening of his awareness of physical attractions. How it all shaped him is left to Banderas to express in more recent flashbacks with his aging mother and in the present day, as he comes to terms with just how far he’s evolved (or hasn’t) from that young boy with a gift for words.
Nostalgia can all too easily warp into self-indulgence, especially in a film as personal as Pain and Glory. Fortunately for us, Almodóvar avoids this particular trap with ease, instead delivering a story of reflection and the passage of time as one anyone with some decades behind them can appreciate. His gorgeous filmmaking coupled with Banderas’s sublime performance make this not only one of Almodóvar’s best films, but one of the year’s as well.
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