Each of Pedro Almodóvar’s films has been extraordinary, and his 21st is also his most personal. The semi-autobiographical story stars Antonio Banderas as a gay Spanish director who is looking back on his past, including his mother, played in flashback by Almodóvar regular Penélope Cruz. The sun-dappled bliss of his simple childhood contrasts with his colourful, complicated urban life, as he muses on lost loves and finds new ways to manage his pain. Reconnecting with a former star (an excellent Asier Etxeandia), he works on a new play that brings back more of the past than he ever imagined.
It’s an elegant, exquisite meditation on creativity, ageing, memory and loss, with a career-best performance from Antonio Banderas, who won Best Actor when the film launched at the Cannes Film Festival. Cannes critics were as enraptured as the jury. “As ever, Almodóvar has made a film about pleasure, which is itself a pleasure: witty, intelligent and sensuous,” wrote The Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw. David Sexton awarded it five stars in The Standard and stated that it was the director’s “best work for years”.
If you’re a fan, you’ll find fresh joy in the illuminating passages about Almodóvar’s childhood – including a crush on a handsome young painter that comes to an emotive conclusion – but Pain And Glory also works beautifully as an introduction to the great film-maker, both in terms of his onscreen alter ego and his film-making style. Although it’s more restrained than his early work, it has all the hallmarks: artistic bohemian characters, seductive interiors, sensual nostalgia, and a wicked sense of humour. There are splashes of the outrageous hilarity of Women On The Verge Of A Nervous Breakdown, but observational character comedy is where this excels, setting up characters you care about enough to laugh with – not at.
Salvador Mallo is a flawed but sympathetic character you immediately warm to and want to spend time with: a gentle, thoughtful human being with great love for others. His emotional journey is quietly moving, and there’s a sense of cinematic history being made as one of the greatest directors of all time bares his soul on screen. You are left with an enhanced admiration for both director and star, as well as a desire to contemplate the beauty in life and art. Yes, there is pain here, but there is far, far more glory.