How fitting that Antonio Banderas, 59, is delivering the performance of his career in a movie loosely based on the life of the director who gave him his breakthrough role in 1982’s Labyrinth of Passion. In Pain and Glory, the 21st movie for the 69-year-old Spanish filmmaker Pedro Almodóvar, the actor plays Salvador Mallo, a former cinematic enfant terrible who, once upon a time, took on the country’s repressive attitudes. Now in his autumn years, he is longer the renegade who splashed the screen with color and waved the flag for society’s sexual and political outcasts. He’s afflicted with creative paralysis and debilitating illnesses: migraines, tinnitus, panic attacks, relentless back pain, and a reflex to choke on solid food. To ease his torment, Salvador experiments for the first time with heroin. But a remedy, if there is one, must come from inside.
Pain and Glory isn’t strictly autobiography, but there are potent parallels in Mallo’s Catholic childhood under Franco, his adoration and exasperation with his mother (beautifully played in flashbacks by Penelope Cruz and magnificently in the present by Julieta Serrano), who’d rather talk about the logistics of her funeral than her son’s films. “I don’t like autofiction,” she sasses. We see Salvador as a child (Asier Flores) getting weak at the knees over the first pang of desire he feels for a man, an attraction his mother futilely tries to nip in the bud. And there’s the adult Salvador emerging as a queer icon, not adverse to shocking an audience into consciousness about the oppression faced by the LGBTQ community.
In this memory piece, set to a supremely lovely score by Alberto Iglesias, Almodóvar takes stock without his usual flamboyant theatrics. Banderas follows suit, his acting a triumph of subtlety and feeling. As Salvador wanders through his Madrid home — a nearly exact replica of Almodovar’s own, right down to the books and paintings that line the walls — the past blends with the present in gorgeously haunting images (kudos to cinematographer José Luis Alcaine). In one scene, Salvador picks up a phone without knowing who’s calling. In seconds, he realizes that the caller is a former lover, played by Leonardo Sbaraglia. Banderas says only the name— Federico. But in those few syllables the actor lets his voice reflect intense recognition and the ache of a loss that hasn’t healed.
What separated these lovers? The answer is found in a dramatic showcase that Salvador writes for Alberto (Asier Exteandia), an actor friend he had previously alienated decades ago. It’s when Federico hears the performer recite that monologue in a theater that the past comes rushing back in a way that deeply affects all three men and brings them together in the here-and-now. The artful symmetry is an Almodovar hallmark, and his cinematic memento is filled with the intimate, indelible moments that made a life. You can feel his passion for cinema in every frame. Pain and Glory is not just his most personal film. It’s also one of his greatest.