Here, he is reunited with both Almodóvar and their other frequent collaborator, Penélope Cruz, even though the two actors occupy different timeframes in this story about Salvador Mallo (Banderas) an ageing film director (fictitious, of course) who is prompted to revisit the key events and relationships in his life when Sabor, his earliest film success is restored for a special 30th anniversary screening. In the lead up to the event, he seeks out his old friend and actor Alberto (Asier Etxeandia) to whom he hasn’t spoken since their disagreement over the way Alberto played the central character Salvador wrote for Sabor. As is often the case, time has softened the sharp edges of their creative disagreement, leaving only the grudge with a life of its own. In fact, upon revisiting his old film, the older Salvador can now see what his younger self could not appreciate in the performance all those years ago. Nevertheless, their reunion is awkward and difficult (and funny!), but slowly begins to heal the rift between them. The actor has a heroin habit and Salvador convinces Alberto to let him try it and soon he becomes a regular user. Along the way, Alberto discovers some of Salvador’s personal writings and convinces the old man to allow him to perform them in a local theatre. As complex and volatile as their rekindled relationship is, it slowly opens Salvador’s eyes to what he has become and what he has lost of his younger self.
And speaking of his younger self, this reflective state of mind Salvador finds himself in, casts us back to his life as a boy (Asier Flores) and his relationship with his mother, Jacinta (Cruz) who is doing her best to raise the boy despite their poor circumstances. It’s here that he is first exposed to the glory of the cinema that he is sure will become his lifelong passion and it does, but when the older Salvador finds he can no longer make movies, the passion becomes a depression and he withdraws to his apartment – a kind of museum-cum-memorial to his glory days full of posters and costumes and set pieces – where he nurses his migraines and back trouble and strange choking affliction. Without his creative outlet, his life, or what he has let it become, is suffocating him.
Almodóvar handles material like this with ease and brings us what feels like a very personal story that doesn’t need some of the energetic and exaggerated characters that we sometimes see in his films. Here, restraint is the key to what is a compelling and moving story that looks at the power of love and loss, of creativity and passion and the importance of recollection and memory in how we make sense of our lives as we grow older. It’s not maudlin, even though it is a serious drama, and it has great wit and humour, even though it is not a comedy. It’s a life story with all the bumps and grinds and triumphs and regrets.
The performances are authentic and effortless in the way they reveal the characters to us with all their vanities, faults, aspirations and longings. It is beautifully shot by Almodóvar’s long time cinematographer, José Luis Alcaine who moves seamlessly between the sunny, visual palette of Salvador’s boyhood and the more sombre mood of his older present day. Likewise, the music by regular composer Alberto Iglesias subtly underscores the emotional arcs of the intertwined stories of past and present that cleverly come together in a slightly unexpected but highly satisfying final scene.
PAIN AND GLORY is a film to immerse yourself in and for those who come to the cinema with enough life experience, it offers us many moments that invite us to reflect on our own stories, our pains and our glories and the things we gain and lose as our own personal narratives unfold. It’s a cinematic gem that is engaging, moving, entertaining and cathartic in equal parts.