“Pain and Glory” begins with Salvador Mallo (Antonio Banderas) suspended in a pool like a dead bug in a jar. He’s halfway in the grave already. In the starring role of the film, Banderas is excellent as Salvador, a Spanish director who lives in constant pain, trapped by his aching body, his equally painful memories and his desperate need for an escape. Salvador is a semi-autobiographical reflection of the film’s director, Pedro Almodóvar. In “Pain and Glory,” Almodóvar blurs the lines between art and life and narrative and memory as he draws extensively on his own life as material for the story.
In less skillful hands, the film could easily have devolved into one giant meta in-joke about autofiction and storytelling. But “Pain and Glory” is saved by its deeply humanistic narrative. In a cinematic landscape dominated by the whiz-bang laser shows of the Marvel Cinematic Universe and its faux-deep counterparts (exercises in shallow nihilism like “Joker”), “Pain and Glory” stands out as a movie about complicated human beings attempting to reconcile themselves with their personal history and to chart their paths forward.
Early on in the movie, Salvador learns about a screening of one of his first films and reaches out to its star Alberto Crespo (Asier Etxeandia) to attend a Q&A with him. Alberto is merely the first of many people from Salvador’s past who will float through his life over the course of the film. Others include former lover Federico Delgado (Leonardo Sbaraglia) and Salvador’s mother Jacinta (Penélope Cruz). These characters serve as sources of both inspiration and guilt for Salvador, but they are fully developed characters in their own rights. Each actor’s strong performance helps them hold their own even though the movie is so very obviously Salvador’s story.
Banderas truly inhabits the role, playing Salvador as a man lost and drifting on memories, purposeless and torpid. The actor’s physicality cannot be understated; Banderas makes you feel every minute that it takes Salvador to climb into a taxi. The first time we see Salvador display any kind of energy is when he’s consumed by an epic coughing fit. Later, when Salvador tries Alberto’s heroin (something for which he soon acquires an addiction), we see him at something resembling peace for the first time.
“Pain and Glory” could also have dwelled too long in the twin body-destroying hells of addiction and old age, but it avoids wallowing in its hero’s suffering and is stronger for it. The lush, vibrant colors suggest a life lived to the fullest, and the cinematography of José Luis Alcaine finds beauty in the simplest of settings. Almodóvar eschews a traditional dramatic art. The issues which would, in other movies, have been thrust to the forefront (i.e. Salvador’s addiction and his strange, slightly twisted relationship with Alberto) remain secondary to the film’s ideas — ideas about memory, creation as catharsis and the intersection of life and art.
These themes form the core of “Pain and Glory,” another rarity in a time of fast movies. Even the good films today are driven relentlessly forward by plot, which whips them faster and faster like a deranged coachman; “Pain and Glory” is not that. Like Salvador, the film drifts into the past and back to the present. It is, with the exception of the farcical Q&A scene, slow. This is not an insult. The film considers its every move carefully and itself warrants careful consideration. The movie is a reminder that smart, mature cinema still exists, even if one is often forced to look outside of the American mainstream to find it.