'Pain and Glory' a sublimely intimate rendering of a man and his memories
"Pain and Glory" -- ★ ★ ★ ★
"Pain and Glory" opens with a shot of Antonio Banderas, underwater and with his eyes closed, in a half-seated pose evoking a serene, bathing-suit-clad Buddha. It's followed by a close-up of the skin of his character's back, which is interrupted by a long pink scar.
That's the first indication that the film, which director Pedro Almodóvar began writing while recuperating from his own spinal surgery a few years ago -- resulting in pain that was only alleviated by floating, semi-weightless, in a pool -- is a kind of loose self-portrait. (The name of Banderas' character, a famous Spanish film director experiencing a creative block, is Salvador Mallo, a rough anagram of "Almodovar." The whole movie itself almost exists inside invisible quotation marks.)
There are other direct references to Almodóvar's life, including his early education in a religious boarding school, where he was expected to one day become a priest, and his struggles to work while in pain. But the story of a mature artist looking simultaneously back on his life and ahead, to his mortality -- an intimate, moving meditation that is at once deeply personal and universal -- is in no way a straightforward autobiography of the 70-year-old filmmaker.
"I don't like auto-fiction," says Salvador's mother, a winking reference to Salvador's -- and Almodóvar's -- propensity for stirring ingredients from his real life into the fictionalized cocktail of his films. As a portrait, "Pain and Glory" is less a mirror than an impressionistic painting. It's an emotional rendering of a person, not a literal one.
Case in point: In the film, Salvador turns to heroin to cope with his back pain, migraines and other physical ailments. He discovers the analgesic properties of the drug after reuniting with Alberto (Asier Etxeandia), an old actor friend of his who has been long estranged -- ever since Alberto's drug habit impaired his performance in one of Salvador's early films.
But narcotic abuse is hardly the point of "Pain and Glory."
Rather, the spark of reconnection between Salvador and Alberto ignites a fuse that sets off a chain reaction of events -- several quite unlikely but with kind of a poetic logic -- all centering on an old manuscript of Salvador's called "Addiction." That memoiristic document, which Alberto finds on Salvador's computer and adapts as a one-man play, is Salvador's reminiscence about his three-year romantic relationship with a man named Federico (Leonardo Sbaraglia) -- a man who just so happens to show up later, quite by chance, at a performance of Alberto's monologue, and who recognizes himself in Salvador's words.
There is so much more going on in "Pain and Glory" that it's hard, not to mention unhelpful, to enumerate it all. Although much of it takes place in flashbacks -- in which we watch Salvador's evolving relationship with his mother (Penélope Cruz in early scenes, and Julieta Serrano when her character is near death) -- the film really takes shape in the space between the adult Salvador's life and his childhood memories.
There's a disconnect between the two mothers: Cruz has brown eyes, and Serrano's are blue. This sets up a lovely payoff at the very end of the film, in which the power of art to reconcile -- and heal -- the past is acknowledged as the most powerful intoxicant there is.
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Starring: Antonio Banderas, Penélope Cruz, Asier Etxeandia, Julieta Serrano, Leonardo Sbaraglia
Directed by: Pedro Almodóvar
Other: A Sony Pictures Classics release. Rated R for drug use, nudity and language. In Spanish with subtitles. 113 minutes