Jeff York

Pedro Almodovar Reflects on Age and Storytelling in All Its “Pain and Glory”

Pedro Almodovar Reflects on Age and Storytelling in All Its “Pain and Glory”
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Pedro Almodovar is one of the cinema’s premier directors, but just as importantly, he’s one of its best screenwriters. He has 36 directorial credits on imdb.com and not surprisingly, he has 36 writing credits too. Almodovar’s direction and writing go hand-in-hand – they’re both bold, colorful, and often, unpredictable. In all of his films, there are not only plenty of twists but wholly unexpected, rule-breaking approaches in his storytelling. These tropes are evident in his latest film Pain and Glory too, and it’s one of his best-ever productions.

In the film, Almodovar shakes up convention once again. He introduces major characters late in the game, veers off on out-of-left-field tangents, and weaves in rug pulls that you never see coming. Almodovar loves to zig where most screenwriters would be content to zag. And with Pain and Glory, he even goes a step farther in his unconventionality by creating a tone throughout the piece that is gentler and sweeter than he’s ever displayed before.

Almodovar’s work always contains biographical elements and that’s especially true this time. The story centers around an aging film director named Salvador Mallo (Antonio Banderas), and he’s a similarly scruffy-bearded, fluffy-haired just like Pedro. Salvador is having an existential crisis in the autumn of his years. He’s fighting all kinds of aches and pains, including a chronic back condition, and nervous exhaustion, and swallowing a pharmacy’s worth of prescription meds.

Pedro Almodóvar and Antonio Banderas
© El Deseo. (Photo by Manolo Pavón. Courtesy Sony Pictures Classics.)

Salvador has hit a wall creatively too, announcing an early retirement as he’s not sure he has anything left to say on film or if he even has the chops to do the job anymore. When he’s asked what he’ll do if he doesn’t make movies, Salvador shrugs and mutters, “Live, I guess.” Yet, as he’s pulled into a retrospective showing of his first film entitled “Sabor” (taste in Spanish), Salvador cannot help but be confronted by his career and the life he’s lived.

Similar to autobiographical works by Federico Fellini and Woody Allen, Almodovar blends in plenty of flashbacks, but he spends as much time showcasing characters talking about the past too. This allows memory to color such history, and in Salvador’s case, it forces him to reconcile how he feels about incidents from his life now versus then. This is especially true when he encounters the leading man from “Sabor.” Salvador had a falling out with Alberto (a fantastic Asier Etxeandia) during the filming and hasn’t spoken to him since the 80s. But as they must reconcile for the retrospective, their fractious relationship heals through understanding and forgiveness that comes from age.

Alberto also introduces Salvador to heroin, and soon enough the tightly wound director is ‘chasing the dragon’ and drifting in and out of fantasy, and various memories, including those of his childhood. The two men become friends again, and Salvador even lets Alberto perform a one-man play he’s written about a past affair with an actor. As Almodovar shows Alberto performing it in a small, Madrid theater, talking about the affair, an audience member breaks down in tears. He is Fredrico (Leonardo Sbaraglia, also excellent), the object of Salvador’s affections and the subject of the play.

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Antonio Banderas

Coincidence, a deus ex machina? Sure, but films are filled with them, and it works here because of the way it sneaks into the story. As Almodovar sets up the story, you think the affair Alberto is talking about with an actor is him, but it’s not. It’s about Frederico, and his visit to Salvador after the show continues with his reckoning with the past and present. Yet, even their reunion doesn’t play out as you’d expect. Their conversation isn’t tense and confrontational, but rather, warm and even sensual. It’s a beautiful scene.

The film is all about the new perspectives that Salvador gains through such episodes. Age, reconciliation, and yes, heroin, help him see things with new eyes. And, this being an Almodovar film, the story is also all about his mother and their complex relationship. Through extended flashbacks, Salvador remembers an idealized childhood, even though he lived in poverty with a headstrong mom and unreliable dad. They couldn’t afford a Valencia apartment, so they’re forced to live in a cave, but it looks pretty sexy here. Is Salvador remembering it through rose-colored glasses, or is there something else going on? The fact that the ever-gorgeous Penelope Cruz plays the mom suggests that something more to the remembrances.

One of the clues to just what’s going on in Almodovar’s surprising and twisting narrative is the fact that Salvador’s mother, played by the steely Julieta Serrano in present-day, looks nothing like Cruz, and doesn’t convey any of her warm qualities here. (At one point, the old bird telling Salvador that he was never a good son.) Also telling, are the perfectly encapsulated highlights from life in that cave that set up Salvador’s love for art, men, and color-blocking.

Banderas does superb work here, replacing his inherent charisma and Latin swagger with a shuffling gait and mournful eyes. It’s another way that Almodovar confounds, casting such a leading man against type so, but it works spectacularly. Banderas should be on the shortlist for Best Actor consideration come awards time, as should Almodovar for both his sensitive, nuanced direction and his surprisingly touching and exceedingly gentle script.

The filmmaker still hits you between the eyes as he always does with his artistry, the colorful cinematography, and employing the wonderful Alberto Iglesias to write another lovely score. But it’s the storytelling, never rushed, nuanced and complex, weaving bits of animation and design effortlessly throughout, that resonates the most. Almodovar loves storytelling, cinema, and yes, even the wisdom that comes with age in all of its pain and glory.

Catch the trailer for Pain and Glory below:

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