★★★★ - THE GUARDIAN
In Pedro Almodóvar’s previous film Julieta, a middle-aged woman returns to her old apartment block in Madrid to write about – and thereby confront – the ghosts of her life. There’s a similar sense of revisiting in Pain and Glory, in which Antonio Banderas plays a becalmed film-maker, struggling to move forward, borne back ceaselessly into the past. Described as the third part of an “unplanned trilogy” which began with Law of Desire (1987) and continued through Bad Education (2004), it’s another deeply personal work from Almodóvar that mixes autobiography with fiction to powerful effect. As the title suggests, the result is a tragicomic swirl of heartbreak and joy, slipping dexterously between riotous laughter and piercing sadness. At its heart is Banderas giving the performance of a lifetime in a role that, following his Cannes triumph, surely demands Oscar recognition.
Like Marcello Mastroianni in Fellini’s 8½, Banderas’s Salvador Mallo is an autofictional director in crisis. His mother, Jacinta, died four years ago and he had a back operation two years ago; he has not recovered from either trauma. Racked by pain, both physical and metaphysical (neatly illustrated by Juan Gatti’s Saul Bass-inflected graphics), Salvador has given up on work and retreated into a depressive cycle, reliant on medication. For more than three decades he’s been estranged from actor Alberto (Asier Etxeandia, excellent), the lead in his 1980s film Sabor, with whom he had a famously fractious relationship. Now a festival wants them to reunite and introduce a restored revival of the picture.
Alberto is a habitual heroin user who introduces Salvador to chasing the dragon before chancing upon his private manuscript, Addiction, a reminiscence of a love affair torn apart. “It’s a confessional text,” says Salvador. “I don’t want to be identified”, echoing his mother’s complaints that his films had turned their private lives into public entertainment. But Alberto insists on performing Addiction as a monologue, setting in motion a chain of events that will blur the line between art and life.
As the present-day story creeps woozily forward, so a mosaic of vivid flashbacks transports Salvador to an altogether more vibrant past: the childhood that saw his parents moving to a village in Valencia where they lived in “a cave!”; the thunderbolt-like dawn of desire, experienced as a childhood fainting fit, understood only on reflection, from a distance; the thrill and agony of unforgettable love, forged in 80s Madrid, the city that would become (in bullfighting parlance) “a difficult ring”.
It’s significant that we first meet Salvador underwater, submerged in a swimming pool, his thoughts floating toward a vision of his mother (played in her younger years by Penélope Cruz) washing clothes in the river – a pastoral idyll. When Salvador recalls his discovery of cinema as a gushing font of life, it’s buoyant images of lakes and waterfalls that leap to mind, forever entwined with the smell of “piss, jasmine and a summer breeze”. Music is a time machine too, from the communal singing of Jacinta and her friends, through the piano tune that takes Salvador back to his seminary choir days (“I like the Beatles and cinema!” he burbles, before being directed toward “less pagan subjects”).
For all the darkness in Salvador’s life, Pain and Glory surrounds him with the blocks of highly choreographed colour that have become Almodóvar’s trademark, accentuating his sense of greying isolation. When estranged lovers meet, Almodóvar stages their embrace as a kaleidoscopic tango of red and blue intertwined, signifying internal fervour amid a scene of dramatic restraint.
Never before has Banderas seemed so vulnerable, his eyes darting back and forth in fear and wonder, shining through a mask of deadpan melancholia and regret. Like the usually burly Russell Crowe’s portrayal of Jeffrey Wigand in The Insider, Banderas here seems to shrink and grow simultaneously, perfectly capturing both the strengths and weaknesses of his character.
In the supporting roles, special mention is due to Julieta Serrano as Jacinta in her 80s, a flintier rendering of previous maternal figures (Almodóvar’s films are, arguably, all about his mother) who tells Salvador offhandedly that he was never a good son, a moment of pin-sharp, bittersweet perfection. Alberto Iglesias’s lovely score perfectly matches the shifting tones of the drama: the warmth of the early childhood scenes, the poignancy of Jacinta’s last days, the tensions and anxieties of Salvador’s suspended life.
It all adds up to a richly satisfying work from a film-maker whose love of cinema, in all its pain and glory, shines through every frame.
-Mark Kermode, GUARDIAN
Pain and Glory is now playing at Light House Cuba