It must be a strange sensation for filmmakers whose bodies of work stretch over many, many decades to come to a point where they can turn, look back, and through the course of their work, see a documentation of their creative and personal lives. Often that self-reflection manifests into a work of its own, and on occasion, that work also turns out to be a revelation. This is certainly the case with 'Pain and Glory', the latest film from internationally acclaimed and beloved Spanish filmmaker Pedro Almodóvar. Not only is it his finest film in years, it also presents one of the most moving portraits of the self-reflective artist ever captured on screen.
Film director Salvador Mallo (Antonio Banderas, 'The Skin I Live In') has reached a point where he can no longer direct any more. His body is in constant pain and he is plagued by constant headaches. When he is asked to introduce a restored print of one of his earlier classics, along with its lead Alberto (Asier Etxeandia) who Salvador has fallen out with, he begins to reflect back on his childhood, his relationship with his mother Jacinta (Penélope Cruz, 'Everybody Knows'), his troubled romantic relationship with old lover Federico (Leonardo Sbaraglia) and everything gained and lost along the way.
The most obvious comparison to make with 'Pain and Glory' is to Fellini's own self-reflective 1963 masterpiece '8 1/2', but while Almodóvar riffs on Fellini's structure, his creation is something entirely his own and so deeply personal. From the moment it begins, 'Pain and Glory' reveals itself as a film of exquisite sadness, deep longing and joyous remembrance, dazzling in its execution and shimmering with passion. As Salvador moves between his past and his present, Almodóvar gathers the pieces of his life and mixes them together with rhapsodic musicality. Salvador does not idealise his past, and the act of returning to it (either through flashback or in his renewed relationship with Alberto) can be as painful as it is revealing, but as Salvador's body threatens to betray him at any moment, those memories become the food that sustains him, the knowledge that his was a life lived - maybe at times a difficult one, but just as joyous. At the same time, his escape into them threatens to overtake him and deny him the ability to live in the present. The pull of the idealised past might be great, but Almodóvar reminds us of the dangers of it, how the longing for something no longer there can become a drug in itself, crippling us and overtaking us. This then becomes the defining relationship in 'Pain and Glory', a tension between the past and the present of who will win over Salvador in the end, how he will reconcile where he has been with where he is now and where he may be going.
This is also a depiction of the life of a director that could only have come from a great filmmaker. The ghosts of Salvador's past works haunt the films, and among the most shattering moments are those where he mourns his inability to create anymore. Salvador's works were the manner in which he was able to make sense of his life, the filter through which he could distil and understand it, and offer that understanding back to his audience and collaborators. His body now denies him of that, and without creative expression, he loses the truly great love of his life. "I miss it every day," he says, and in this moment, Almodóvar says far more than most have ever said about the life of an artist, the violence of creation and the vacuum that's left when you no longer can. Perhaps that is the great sadness at the heart of 'Pain and Glory' - not as much the relationships lost along the way, but how the inability to creatively express prevents Salvador from doing those relationships justice.
Almodóvar captures something almost indefinable about our relationship with memory, his great skills as a sensory filmmaker so perfectly suited to exploring the textured and tonal experience of remembering. His control of his craft has always been absolute, and 'Pain and Glory' is amongst the most beautiful films of recent years, bursting with colour and detail, but here he once again gains complete control over his theme as well. The wildness of his recent works is contained to pinpoint precision, and every second of the film in total service to its intentions. Almodóvar delicately strips every layer away from Salvador and consequently himself, and even amongst his remarkable artifice (similarly to Joanna Hogg's 'The Souvenir', using the medium of film itself as symbol and language for exploring his own self), you feel you are being led directly into the heart of this storyteller. José Luis Alcaine's cinematography is almost faultless, and what he achieves with colour and light weaponises the clarity of digital photography. Antxón Gómez's production design and Paola Torres' costumes bring the inner worlds of the characters to startling life, striking that careful balance so integral to Almodóvar's work of idealised reality without falling into off-putting artifice. Credit must also go to Alberto Iglesias' luscious score, grabbing you and enveloping you into the film from the moment it begins.
'Pain and Glory' is amongst the most beautiful films of recent years.
It makes sense that such a self-reflective film would place one of Almodóvar's longest collaborators at its centre, and 'Pain and Glory' allows Antonio Banderas to deliver maybe the finest performance of his career. His work as Salvador is gentle, sincere, restrained and consistently staggering, his physical and emotional pain always sitting just below the surface. We glimpse it through Banderas' soulful eyes, a deep and barely controllable sadness. His physicality is a portrait of time itself, Banderas imbuing Salvador's physical ailments with the weight of memory and longing with every step. You can't articulate it as you watch it, but this is a performance that very slowly breaks your heart with every step. The supporting cast are all sublime, Etxeandia providing a perfect foil for Banderas and resulting in some of the funniest moments of the film, a lightness that supports the melancholy. Penélope Cruz is never better than when she works with Almodóvar, and this is no exception - she's as radiant as ever, reminding us of what a phenomenal actor she is. There's also beautiful, tender work from Leonardo Sbaraglia, as well as a tremendous performance from Asier Flores as the young Salvador.
If you were to tell me that 'Pain and Glory' was Pedro Almodóvar's final film, I would be inclined to believe you. Rarely has the act of looking back on one's past been so vividly and honestly depicted, and so richly and emotionally satisfying. You can feel the need for this film to exist in every frame, a need to understand and reflect and celebrate and mourn. It is a portrait of an artist at a crossroads, entering the last act of their lives, looking back at what they have created and the battlefield left in their wake, and facing the terror of never creating again. 'Pain and Glory' is an intensely beautiful film, one that hangs in the air around you like a perfume for days after. The more I think back on it, the more certain I am that I've seen a masterwork. I cannot wait to see it again.