The title Pain and Glory, in combination with Antonio Banderas, from the outside might point toward a self-fulfilling machismo prophecy. But director Pedro Almodóvar’s return to form isn’t a tale of flaming testosterone or butting egos. The Volver creator’s latest work nimbly prods into the psyche and pain of an elderly filmmaker, one whose fire lacks oxygen today, and whose ego fades with his ever-diminishing strength.

Banderas stars as Salvador Mallo, a retired screenwriter and director left in perpetual pain by a number of ailments. The Zorro (1998) actor initially rose to prominence during the 90’s, when Latin culture became the sexualized paradigm of cool. In music, Ricky Martin and Enrique Iglesias reigned supreme; in acting, Banderas with his husky accent and suave yet rugged physique became the acting archetype of the burgeoning trend. While his looks still exist in Pain and Glory, they’re accompanied by wild peppered curls atop his head and a weathered beard. Banderas is less muscular here, losing weight to play the infirmed auteur.

Taking inspiration from Federico Fellini’s 8 ½ (1963), Almodóvar’s film follows the uninspired Salvador through flashbacks of his childhood and past relationships, sexual and parental, to explain his character’s current creative drought. Most of Salvador’s reminiscences center around the memories of his mother, played by Penelope Cruz. His recollections take on a dream-like quality, often idealized. Almodóvar takes great care to enliven the viewer’s eyes to the artificially immaculate sets he employs during the flashbacks, whether they’re a young Salvador (Asier Flores) and his mother sleeping in a train station or the boy’s choir practices.

Pain and Glory also mines the relationship between Salvador and his once friend and collaborator Alberto Crespo (Asier Etxeandia) —an actor and current heroin addict. Alberto fell out with his artistic partner during their film Sabor due to creative differences. The two haven’t spoken to one another in 32 years, but a screening of a new print of Sabor and the prospects of a Q&A bring the two together again. Both are the worse for wear, yet they’re bound together, connected by heroin.

Salvador also suffers from near-crippling back pain and chokes even when he drinks water. Heroin becomes his way of coping with the symptoms, and his method for exploring his memories. When “rides the dragon” or trips, he thinks back to his mother. He also remembers Eduardo (Asier Etxeandia), the young man he helped learn to read and write. Salvador meets with old flames, and one partner in particular, along with revelations about his relationship with his mother, causes the film to delve into various caves of emotional vulnerability left walled-up and forgotten. 

Banderas offers the greatest performance of his career, and Almodóvar’s beautifully poignant ending is a rebirth for both actor and director. Pain and Glory may thrive with trauma at its heart, but it holds you with understanding in its arms.     

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