[Review] ‘PAIN AND GLORY’ sees Antonio Banderas at his absolute best

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James Clay//Film Critic

PAIN AND GLORY

Rated R, 113 minutes.
Director: Pedro Almodovar
Cast: Antonio Banderas, Asier Etxeandia and Penelope Cruz

PAIN AND GLORY, by celebrated Spanish filmmaker Pedro Almodovar (VOLVER), takes a look inward, outward and forward. It’s a film about attempting self-discovery. The director’s name may not ring bells stateside, but overseas (and in certain cinephile circles in America), the work of Almodovar is in the pantheon of auteurs. 

This drama (grazed with some cheeky bits of comedy) has Almodavar teaming up again with international star Antonio Banderas (THE SKIN I LIVE IN), who gives an honest, yet reserved performance that will have the actor on a months-long awards campaign this fall. The film suggests that these two men are questioning their own mortality, both personally and professionally, by taking those anxieties on as a challenge and turning them into a delicate piece of filmmaking that celebrates all phases of life. 

PAIN AND GLORY might as well be a memoir for the filmmaker’s life, chronicling lost lovers, a meager upbringing in a rural Spanish village, countless health issues and a creeping drug dependency. Almodovar rebukes all these claims, either way, but it allows the filmmaker to masterfully play in the cinematic medium by guiding the audience on a journey that uncovers surprising subtle turns that arrive without notice.

Salvador Mallo (Banderas), a famous film director on the decline is told by an actress he once worked with that a theater in his hometown of Madrid is restoring one of Mallo’s most celebrated films in honor of its 30th anniversary. He’s breaking apart at the seams, waxing on in a zippy voiceover that showcases his carnival of conditions, including chronic back pain, ulcers, insomnia, anxiety – you name it. These ailments are paralyzing the once prolific director. He initially refuses to take part in the post-screening Q&A because of a falling out he had with the film’s leading man, Alberto Crespo (Asier Etxeandia), over “creative differences.” 

After denouncing the film, he’s started to view his career in a different way. He says to the actress maybe something has changed. She says to him, “The film hasn’t changed, but your eyes have.” He sits there hunched over like a boulder ready to deflect anything that can cause him to be vulnerable. Although his reliability is questionable, Mallo recounts his life and career in great detail.  Lurking in Banderas’ voiceover is a fond sense of melancholy that acts as a confessional for the character he’s embodying.

Almodovar has always been a colorful filmmaker. His films breathe life into accentuating the colors that make up our world. The production design, by Antxon Gomez, tinkers with subdued color mixtures, something as small as Mallo’s perfectly orange windbreaker can make the whole scene pop. While Alberto Iglesias (ironically) melodramatic score sets the stage for this to be some sort of narcissistic tragedy. All of these elements have Almodovar working at the height of his powers as an auteur delicately making this otherwise frivolous story deeply profound. There’s no shortage of films about struggling artists, and Almodovar’s film beautifully epitomizes the concept. 

As the film morphs from a goofy drug-fueled comedy to a point of reckoning with Mallo’s choices through memories, we become tethered to his story. From the past to present, we recognize the conflicting feelings he has about the decisions and how they have burdened his current station in life. He topped his career field, but he also left his mother (Penelope Cruz). Mallo traveled the world, but now his body is falling apart. He’s an artist who wants to have it all. While the film portrays inflated ego that tags along with notoriety, Almodovar checks himself by questioning Mallo’s morality. 

PRIDE AND GLORY is an elegant film from an assured filmmaker. Films like this ask us to question ourselves, look for the source of what makes us who we are today, and highlights the importance of change. Evolving is inevitable. The memories we accrue are formative, and as they pile up, Almodovar is searching for the path forward through the stories we tell. No matter how reliable, reflection is a gift within itself. 

Grade: A-