Dir: Pedro Almodóvar. Starring: Antonio Banderas, Penelope Cruz, Asier Etxeandia. 15 cert, 113 mins

Pedro Almodóvar’s Pain and Glory (screening in competition in Cannes) is the kind of indulgent and self-absorbed film that only a director with such a glittering career behind him would be allowed to get away with. It’s about a filmmaker looking back on his past, mulling over his life and relationships. Imagine a Spanish version of a Bergman or Woody Allen film about love and loss and you will come close to its essence. It’s a wonderfully evocative affair with a subtle, soulful performance from Antonio Banderas.

The filmmaker protagonist, Salvador Mallo (Banderas), is first seen in a swimming pool, underwater, motionless. He is on the cusp of old age and is a pronounced hypochondriac. He has lumbago, tinnitus and countless other ailments. He is also profoundly depressed. “Without filming, my life is meaningless,” he declares at one stage, but he appears to have abandoned his cinema career.

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Pain and Glory has an episodic structure. There are moments showing Salvador as a young boy, growing up in humble circumstances and being doted on by his beautiful mother (Penelope Cruz). These are interspersed with scenes showing him in the present day. He has written an autobiographical story called Addiction which deals with a love affair he had long ago. His partner became a heroin addict. Now, an actor, Alberto Crespo (Asier Etxeandia), who starred in one of Salvador’s most famous movies, wants to stage Addiction.

Alberto himself consumes heroin in prodigious amounts, smoking it on tin foil. Salvador starts taking the drug too, primarily to relieve his aches and pains. The two men have been estranged for over 30 years but Salvador gives permission for Alberto to perform the play. His character in it is a loosely fictionalised version of Salvador. Salvador, in turn, is bound to be seen by audiences as Almodóvar’s alter ego. Adding to the sense of Chinese boxes about the film, the old drug-addicted lover from Salvador’s early youth turns up out of the blue. (Apparently, he is in Madrid to collect an inheritance.)

Salvador’s professional and private lives are completely intertwined. His films are based directly on episodes from his own biography. “Don’t get that storyteller look,” his mother tells him at one stage, realising that he regards everything that happens to him as fair game for his fiction. He has been very successful in his career and that has enabled him to have new experiences that, again, he has fed into his work

A late, very moving section of the film deals with his relationship with his mother as an old woman in the last stages of her life.

There are longeurs here – moments when you wish that Salvador would fast forward through his memories rather than dwell on them in such fetishistic detail. The flashbacks are thrown into the film in a random fashion. Coincidences abound. Some of the action seems to be happening in “real” time and some of it takes place in dreams. Almodóvar, though, knows how to make the simplest moments in Salvador’s recreated life seem poignant and poetical. 

There’s a wonderful sequence early on of the boy sitting by the shore as his mother and the other women wash clothes in the river, singing old ballads as they do so. He is a very precocious child whose love of books and films came early. The outdoor cinemas of his childhood “always smelled of piss and summer breezes,” he remembers. 

Salvador could easily have seemed a pompous and deeply pretentious character. Banderas, though, plays him with humour, tenderness and a sense of the ridiculous. There is something comic about his extreme solipsism. The film is beautifully shot and has a very haunting soundtrack with a lot of flute on it.

Almodóvar fans will pore over Pain and Glory, looking for clues about how autobiographical this movie is. Others can simply sit back and enjoy the delicate and lyrical way in which Almodóvar shows his filmmaker hero voyaging deep into his past.

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