“Pain and Glory” is the 21st full-length feature by Spanish auteur Pedro Almodóvar. It is third part of a trilogy that began with 1987’s “Law of Desire” followed by 2004’s “Bad Education.” In each film, the central character is a filmmaker who is toying with the idea of a new project as desires of the flesh come into play.
In one of the best performances of his career, Antonio Banderas takes on the protagonist role here while resisting the temptation to model himself after Almodóvar in their ninth collaboration. Regulars Penelope Cruz and Julieta Serrano make an appearance, but it’s the performances by Banderas, Asier Etxeandia and Leonardo Sbaraglia that shine brightest.
Banderas plays Salvador Mallo, a film director in failing health who hasn’t worked in years. With his glory days behind him and the loves of his life gone, he lives alone in his colorful apartment in Madrid, never relocating from the city where he found his true love Federico (Leonardo Sbaraglia) in the ‘80s.
His life has been one filled with addictions, from cinema and men to his present dependence, a concoction of painkillers and heroin, which he smokes from a piece of aluminum foil.
It’s a very restrained performance by Banderas who appears frail and apathetic.
As the film’s title suggests, life is filled with pain and glory and while Salvo may be in a considerate amount of physical pain, it’s the mental anguish so deftly conveyed by Banderas that torments the renowned director.
While Banderas resisted the temptation to mimic Almodóvar’s quirks for his performance, it’s obvious the role is semi-autobiographical. Salvo’s apartment reflects the director’s (furnished with some of Almodóvar’s artwork), and there are plenty of similarities in Salvo’s timeline that echo Almodóvar’s life. This may be the director’s most personal film, but he’s also admitted that while his life established Salvo’s starting point, much of the story is fiction.
Almodóvar uses flashbacks to give the audience a glimpse into the life that shaped Salvo. We see him as a small child (Asier Flores) in the ‘60s when his parents emigrated to Valencia. Penelope Cruz plays his mother Jacinta, a vision of beauty whom we first see in a scene that takes place at a riverbed where she and other women wash their clothes while singing a beautiful a cappella version of “A Tu Vera” as little Salvo smiles in what will be one of the fondest memories of his mother. Cruz also played a version of Almodóvar’s mother in the 2006 film “Volver.”
Later in “Pain,” the wonderful Julieta Serrano plays the adult Salvo’s mother (now in her 80s) who explains “You were not a good son to me,” while describing how she wants to be buried noting that if the funeral parlor ties her feet together, Salvo is to untie them because “The place where I’m going, I want to go in very quickly.” It’s wonderful to see Serrano and Banderas together again as mother and son after similar roles in Almodóvar’s “Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown” and “Matador.”
Almodóvar and Banderas had a falling out that lasted for 20 years after Banderas turned down a role in the director’s 1991 film “Kika” to star in the Warner Bros film “The Mambo Kings” opposite Armand Assante. The two reunited for “The Skin I Live In,” released in 2011.
Reflecting Almodóvar’s life, Asier Etxeandia plays an actor named Alberto Crespo who fell out of grace with Salvo decades ago after delivering a heroin-fueled performance in the director’s film “Sabor,” which has just been restored for an anniversary screening.
Salvo reconnects with Alberto for the screening after the theater requests a question-and-answer session.
Etxeandia is superb in the film who we see is still chasing the dragon but not to the extent where he can’t function. Salvo, suffering from spinal fusion and other disabilities, decides to try heroin for the first time to relieve his pain, which brings back memories of his former lover Federico.
There is a scene in the film between Banderas and Sbaraglia that only lasts for a few seconds, yet it is one of the purest displays of affection ever captured in one of Almodóvar’s films.
As with any of the director’s films, “Pain and Glory” is filled with an array of vibrant colors captured beautifully by cinematographer Jose Luis Alcaine with praise to production designer Antxón Gómez.
At 59-years old, Antonio Banderas, still with those leading man looks, delivers an exquisite performance perfectly suited to his stage in life. By that I mean, Banderas is the ideal age for the role.
Hollywood took Banderas and molded him into an action star, but some of his best performances have been in ‘90s dramas such as “Philadelphia,” “The Mambo Kings,” and the musical “Evita.”
To really appreciate his proficiency as an actor just watch any of his performances from the nine films he’s collaborated on with Pedro Almodóvar.
With a role in Steven Soderbergh’s “The Laundromat” in select theaters now and Netflix on Oct. 18 and six films in pre or post-production, Banderas is far from retiring.
But if he or Almodóvar chose to walk away from films now, “Pain and Glory” would be a graceful swan song for the pair. One of the best pictures of 2019.