“In the cinema of my childhood, it always smells of piss … and of jasmine, and of summer breezes.”
It’s a line so good it appears twice — or is it three times? — in Pedro Almodóvar’s tender new memory film, Pain and Glory. Tactile in its descriptiveness, and elegant in its poetic juxtaposition — in the lovely ellipsis separating the pungent and the perfumed — it struck me as something out of Fitzgerald or Roth, not world cinema’s naughty provocateur of candy-colored melodrama.
It is an older man’s line in an older man’s film, born out of hindsight’s widening clarity. I hope this is not Almodóvar’s last movie, but it has the reflective heft of one. A remembrance of things past and a lucid reckoning with the director’s own weaknesses and misgivings, Pain and Glory is a pinnacle of autofiction, in many ways representing everything his oeuvre has been building toward. I’m not going to play the game of, “it’s his greatest film since such-and-such” without another look at The Skin I Live In or Bad Education. Suffice to say it’s among his best.
We first see the aforementioned line on a computer screen, in an unpublished prose work called “Addiction” written by filmmaker Salvador Mallo (Antonio Banderas), who shares Almodóvar’s shock of white hair and penchant for sunglasses indoors. Later, “Addiction” will be shaped into a solo theater piece by an actor eager to portray its vulnerable pathos, with the piece’s authorship removed — Salvador is not yet ready to tie his name to such aching memories, content let others become vessels for his passions and regrets.
Salvador is a recluse in contemporary Madrid, a bygone cultural icon retired by circumstance and a certain strain of defeatism more than by lack of ideas or ambition. He’s in pain all the time — a surprising visual foray into anatomical illustrations explores the physical maladies and associated mental and emotional bruising that have plagued him for decades — and he believes that he could not endure sitting in a chair for a couple of hours, let alone directing a feature.
An opportunity to reexamine his work lifts him out of exile. A print for one of his salacious older films has been restored, and he’s been asked to speak at a Q&A during a festival screening alongside its lead actor, Alberto (Asier Etxeandia). Salvador and Alberto had a falling-out during the filming that has persisted for 32 years. Confronting the actor will be the first in a series of cascading instances of Salvador’s past lapping against his present like waves on a beachfront. As Salvador medicates himself, both with prescription pill cocktails and a newly acquired heroin habit, he becomes increasingly lost in childhood reveries, when he grew up, poor but preternaturally brilliant, in a grotto with his mother Jacinta (Penélope Cruz), and discovered his identity.
The biographical specificity of Pain and Glory is difficult to miss. Many of its scenes appear in D.T. Max’s essential New Yorker profile of Almodóvar from 2016: washing clothes in the river of his village with his mother and her friends, whose laundering assumes the air of a communal ritual; the young Salvador’s education in a Catholic school choir, and his subsequent rejection of organized religion. And there’s this line: “In the summer in Madrigalejo, movies were projected on a wall of a building that, at other times, was used by boys to piss on.”
Yet, as informed as the film is by Almodóvar’s own history, there’s enough winking metafiction in Pain and Glory to muddy the waters. His onscreen surrogate’s name, Salvador, is awfully similar to Salvatore, the filmmaker at the heart of another movie-mad memory film, Cinema Paradiso.
Viewers may also think back to the more recent Roma, a rich and stirring story inspired by a filmmaker’s childhood. But while Alfonso Cuarón’s Oscar winner is a stylistic outlier in a chameleonic career, Pain and Glory is an auteurist marvel. It is identifiable within seconds as an Almodóvar movie. The ravishing visuals, bold in their primary colors, echo out from recurring influences like Vincente Minnelli and Douglas Sirk, and the retro-modernist décor of Salvador’s home looks like it emerged from a design catalog in the 1960s. Even the sumptuous psychedelic wallpaper altering our states during the credit sequence tips us off to the director’s florid style.
But he saves the film’s most self-reflexive masterstroke for the marvelous final sequence. It’s an act of bravura magic that, once you unpeel its layers, speaks to the curative properties of filmmaking — the same properties, in essence, that film-going inspired a half-century earlier, urine smell and all.
PAIN AND GLORY. Director: Pedro Almodóvar; Cast: Antonio Banderas, Penélope Cruz, Asier Etxeandia, Leonardo Sbaraglia, Julieta Serrano; in Spanish with English subtitles; Distributor: Sony Pictures Classics Opens: Friday at Living Room Theaters in Boca Raton, the Tower Theater and Silverspot Cinema in Miami, and Coral Gables Art Cinema