Film Review | Pain And Glory: Turning the camera around

The world’s most celebrated Spanish film-maker lays all vulnerabilities bare with this tender and quietly delightful exploration of the crises that mark a film-maker’s twilight years

Just like we saw with Quentin Tarantino’s latest foray into that rare beast – the independently-minded blockbuster – Pedro Almodovar returns to cinemas with a by-now requisite bout of orchestral fanfare, eager audience and enthusiastic critical reception in tow. Unlike Tarantino’s stranglehold over public attention, however, Almodovar coasts on both aesthetic brand recognition and the ability to marshal back stars that he’s made famous worldwide to work for him once again.

In this case, it’s Antonio Banderas and Penelope Cruz, the latter playing the former’s mother in sprinkled flashbacks that recall both our protagonists’ and Almodovar’s own childhood in Franco-era Spain. Here’s where another sprinkle of similarity to Tarantino can be sustained: this is also a film that plucks the bittersweet lute strings of nostalgia to mesmerising, memorable effect, though the melody that gradually builds up is created out of far more personal matter than Hollywood pastiche-history.

But the comparison fares best when compared to the underlying basis of the experience on offer. Like Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, Almodovar’s Pain and Glory proceeds like a perfectly pitched, perfectly timed and perfectly executed performance of a mature director fully in control of their powers and fully conscious of the legacy that they’re likely to leave behind.

Self-awareness without stifling self-consciousness is in fact key. Later on in the film, Almodovar explicitly puts into question the validity and ethical murkiness of ‘auto-fiction’, prodding at the idea that an autobiography is never, in fact, a solitary affair, with friends and family sometimes ending up as collateral damage to the artist’s cathartic exploration of their past. But that’s precisely what happens in this honest and smoothly-moving feature, with Banderas’s ageing director Salvador Mallo being nudged back into public life after a remastered version of his early masterpiece, ‘Sabor’, is scheduled for a one-time screening to an appreciative audience.

But as his doting agent Mercedes (Nora Navas) informs him, the crowds would love to hear from the film’s star, Alberto Crespo (Asier Etxeandia), who has faded into relative obscurity while Salvador continued to make his films. But there’s bad blood between the pair, stoked into bitter being by Salvador’s dissatisfaction with Alberto’s performance in Sabor, which he saw as an irreconcilable distortion of his own vision for the character.

Needless to say, their forced reunion gets off on the wrong foot. But a combination of Salvador’s newly-discovered predilection of cocaine and the chance discovery on Alberto’s part on a half-finished monologue on Salvador’s computer leads both men towards an unlikely creative renaissance.

The true brilliance of Almodovar’s confessional expose’ is that it succeeds in being both nakedly revelatory while never once giving in to exploitation and sentimentality. And for a director renowned for his playful use of kitsch and melodrama, it is doubly impressive to see him rein in those instincts here, when the closeness of the subject matter would, one assumes, make the temptation towards shrieking and hand-wringing all the more tempting.

What is certainly present and accounted for is Almodovar’s effortless grasp of a gorgeous palette; cinematographically aided along by José Luis Alcaine and thematically tied to the coming-of-age story at the film’s centre: young Salvador’s ‘true education’ at the hands of the technicolour gems of Hollywood’s Golden Age.

So, visually rooted with a typical confidence and assurance, Almodovar’s intimate story is allowed to unspool with surprisingly little dramatic frills. Scores are settled, and key revelations are dropped at the right moment. But that is hardly the point. Confessing the true extent of the titular pain that dogs Salvador’s latter-day existence in a collage that scans like a mercifully truncated riff on Kubrick and Malick at their trippiest, we follow him along and root for him to somehow regain at least a taste of the ‘glory’ that makes it all worthwhile.

And for all the centrality and power of Almodovar’s own presence in this film, and on the world cinema stage as a whole, none of this would have been possible without the subtle, humble and utterly self-effacing performance from Antonio Banderas that we’re regaled with here. It’s a reminder that, for all his trademark flourishes and stylistic bravado, Almodovar’s film is, like any other, a collaborative affair. In the end, what leads to glory is making peace with frayed friendships and muddled memories. Cinema’s a good way to accomplish that.

The verdict

With typical verve and sensitivity, Almodovar delves into his own personal history to present an emotionally raw but narratively delightful exploration of a film-maker’s twilight years. There’s a very particular pleasure to observing a film-maker at the height of his powers so effortlessly wield a masterful balance of pathos and comedy, and Pain and Glory delivers on all fronts.

Pain and Glory will be screened at Spazju Kreattiv Cinema at St James Cavalier, Valletta tonight at 8pm and September 25, October 1 and October 11 at 7.30pm