It’s a process that happens to nearly all punks eventually. Except for the spiky crest of hair, which still suggests the defiant look of a strutting dooryard rooster, there’s little about Pedro Almodóvar’s appearance today that reflects the bad-boy director’s anti-establishment roots. In “Pain and Glory,” it is frequent collaborator Antonio Banderas who rocks that coif, which instantly signals to audiences that the tormented filmmaker he plays was inspired, at least in part, by the man who launched his career with “Labyrinth of Passion” and “Law of Desire” more than three decades earlier.
Both the character and his creator have mellowed in that time, during which Spanish society has relaxed its stance toward the counterculture to which he gave voice. (The film opened in Spain two months before its premiere in competition at Cannes. Sony Pictures Classics will release it on Oct. 4 in the U.S.) Where other rebel artists ratchet up the volume to stay relevant with age, Almodóvar calmly moves in the other direction as he confides — with no small amount of irony — that he suffers from tinnitus (imagine, a rock star whose ears are always ringing!), plus a whole litany of other ailments, from chronic back pain to pressure headaches, panic attacks, and anxiety.
Since the beginning, Almodóvar’s films have been intensely personal, extending enormous empathy to homosexuals, transvestites, and fully dimensional female characters. It is only in watching “Pain and Glory,” however, that one realizes that despite the all-embracing humanism for which the director is so rightly adored, he has somehow withheld that same generosity from himself. Now, after all these years, Almodóvar boldly pulls back the curtain to reveal his own insecurities, embodied in the character of creatively blocked director Salvador Mallo (Banderas).
The result is a mature work of meticulously tuned metafiction, erupting with so many of the director’s signature touches — bold colors, passionate embraces, and copious references to his cinematic inspirations (from Liz Taylor to Fellini), all wrapped up in what is Alberto Iglesias’ best score — while making a conscious decision to reject broad melodrama in pursuit of a subtler, more direct form of authenticity. “Subtlety” isn’t a word one typically associates with Almodóvar (and even then, it’s only relative to the stylistic extravagance of his uniquely over-the-top oeuvre). Even so, it’s a welcome new mode in which to see him operate, trusting honesty over theatrics.
When Almodóvar went “upscale” 20 years back, I was happy to see the mainstream embrace him, but I missed the anarchically queer lunacy of his early career. At the time, it seemed as if Almodóvar had made those films — “All About My Mother,” “Talk to Her,” “Bad Education” — in a kind of “respectability drag,” whereas with “Pain and Glory,” the director presents himself au naturel before audiences. Picture Elton John without his hairpiece, Mickey Rourke sans plastic surgery. What could be more radical than to reveal one’s own frailties?
“Without filming, my life is meaningless,” confides Salvador, who finds it impossible to work in his present condition, one in which his body seems to be, quite literally, on the verge of a nervous breakdown at all times. Still, he is blocked not by a lack of ideas but by a profusion of pain. In the role of Salvador, Banderas isn’t “doing” Almodóvar per se. The performance is informed by their decades-long friendship, of course, but there’s no mimicry or caricature involved. If anything, what we’re witnessing here is an act of profound appreciation for — and trust in — a fellow artist, for which Banderas strips away the facade of movie-star virility and presents himself as emotionally bare as his director.
Thirty years have passed since the release of a key film in Salvador’s career, “Sabor,” and the Madrid cinematheque has arranged to screen a newly restored print. Though Salvador was frustrated with the film’s drug-addled star, Alberto Crespo (photogenic TV actor Asier Etxeandia), at the time of “Sabor’s” release, the director now wants to repair the rift in their friendship, showing up at the actor’s house to make amends. While there, Alberto breaks out the heroin, as is his habit, and Salvador surprises himself by asking to try the stuff.
In anyone else’s hands, this would surely seem like an outrageously extreme solution to Salvador’s problem, but Almodóvar doesn’t take a traditional, moralistic look at substance abuse. Yes, “the dragon” of heroin gets its claws in Salvador, but what matters to the film is trying to understand the state of mind — and body — that make the character susceptible to it in the first place. It also serves as a poignant allegory for addiction in a broader sense: In the same way that Salvador’s system will never forget — and to some extent will always crave — the rush of heroin, so too is he imprinted by several key loves from earlier in his life.
Salvador’s visit to his heroin-dependent friend sparks the first in a series of virtual reconciliations which Almodóvar makes possible through this film: first Alberto, then ex-lover Federico (Leonardo Sbaraglia), and finally his mother (played in flashback by Penélope Cruz and “Pepi, Luci, Bom” actress Julieta Serrano on the character’s next-to-last day on Earth). For those who believe that physical pain can often be psychosomatic in origin — arguing that we can heal our bodies if only we address whatever mental distress sits at the root of our discomfort — then the movie represents a kind of spiritual self-care, as Salvador/Almodóvar seeks closure for three unresolved chapters.
In the most poignant of these encounters, Salvador listens as his mother tells him how she’d like to be buried. She also forbids him to use her in one of his films — “I don’t like autofiction,” she chides — which of course the director had already done (Almodóvar’s real-life mom died just months after his homage to her, “All About My Mother,” played at the Cannes Film Festival). But here we learn that there remained many things unsaid between them, as Almodóvar gives Salvador the opportunity he never had to apologize: “I’ve failed you simply by being as I am.”
Most of the mother’s scenes take place when Salvador’s character is 9 years old and living under Cruz’s “roof” among the caves of Paterna — a romantically reimagined childhood that wasn’t Almodóvar’s own (“Bad Education” reportedly hews closer to his actual upbringing). Still, it does provide a clue to yet another dimension of his dolor: It is here that the altar-boy-innocent Salvador (Asier Flores) becomes aware of his sinful “first desire,” awakened by a coarsely handsome handyman (César Vicente) whom he teaches to read, and who memorably repays the favor via a kind of private show. When the attraction becomes too much for Salvador to handle, his knees buckle and he faints — the first sign of mental causes having feverish consequences.
These Fellini-esque memories are filtered through the running motif of water, which Salvador associates with the cinema from an early age. Movies, too, are one of Almodóvar’s addictions, and perhaps the ultimate painkiller. Why then do we find ourselves weeping when Alberto delivers the film’s central monologue? For audiences who’ve spent three decades or more invested in the artifice and theater of Almodóvar’s oeuvre, it’s a question of catharsis: This is the first time we’ve seen the master director’s soul so purely exposed.