Intro Retro Pedro
Whether or not you feel the last few weeks have seen a bit of a drought when it comes to interesting and worthwhile filmgoing experiences is, of course, a matter of taste, but there are signs of an upturn of sorts (although again, you may find your mileage varying). You do not often find films like Pedro Almodóvar's Pain and Glory (title Español: Dolor y gloria) turning up in UK multiplex cinemas, but here it is – is it simply because of the director's formidable reputation, acquired through decades of quality work? Or is there honestly not much else around to occupy that particular screen? One would like to think the former.
The first thing that makes Pain and Glory a slightly odd fit for the typical multiplex is, obviously, that it is in Spanish, the second is that it is also really an art house movie. It features a couple of famous performers, but it doesn't fit easily into any particular genre and is arguably not the most accessible of films, on a number of levels. I won't say the film is one long in-joke, not least because it isn't actually a comedy, but a degree of familiarity with Pedro Almodóvar's life and works will probably help you to appreciate where the film is coming from.
Antonio Banderas plays Salvador Mello, the world's most famous Spanish film director, who as the film opens has not made a movie for some time, primarily for health reasons (or so he says). His rather listless experience receives a jolt when he is informed that one of his films from thirty years ago is to be revived, and presented to a new audience by the lead actor (Asier Etxeandia) – to whom Mello hasn't spoken since it was finished, following a big row between the two.
(Already there are multiple layers of self-referentiality and irony going on here for the in-the-know – it is fairly clear who the character of the world's most famous Spanish film director is based on, and the plot is likewise informed by the fact that Banderas and Almodóvar had a major falling out when the actor – whom Almodóvar discovered – went off to make English-language movies, and didn't work together for twenty years afterwards.)
Well, one thing leads to another and Salvador finds himself reconnecting with all manner of people from his past, from artistic collaborators to his first real boyfriend (Leonardo Sbaraglia). He also picks up a bit of a drug habit, which seems to lead to his having vivid dreams about his youth half a century earlier, and the fraught relationship between his parents (his mother is played by Penelope Cruz, another actor with a long track record of working with this director). But is this all just a sign of a slightly sick man settling into a premature decline? Or can Mello find a way to get himself out of this slump?
It quickly becomes apparent that Pain and Glory has less of the colour and vibrancy that many of Almodóvar's most famous films are distinguished by. This is a sober, restrained piece of work, both introspective and retrospective – it's very hard not to interpret it as the director looking back on his life and career, with appearances from other actors who he has worked with in the past – Cecilia Roth, from All About My Mother, has a small cameo, for instance. It almost seems to have a valedictory quality, which is surely a bit premature given that Almodóvar is not yet 70.
However, the film retains much of the clever playfulness and subtlety of his best-known films, not to mention his fondness for outrageously implausible plotting. Almodóvar is never afraid of using a credibility-strangling coincidence to move one of his scripts along, and this happens here in a couple of places too. The trick is that you become so invested in the characters and their situations that you suspend your disbelief, and this does happen here as usual – it's curious to think that Anglophone audiences tend to think of Antonio Banderas as either a light comedian or (more bizarrely) an action hero. Perhaps Almodóvar's imprecations that he would waste his talent in Hollywood had some truth to them, for here he gives a very strong and rounded dramatic performance, in what can't have been especially easy circumstances (he is essentially embodying the writer-director of the film).
I note that Penelope Cruz has managed to wangle herself the 'with the special collaboration of' credit on this movie, which I'm guessing is the Spanish version of 'special guest star' and indicates the actor is doing the director a favour by turning up. Well, her charm and ability are undiminished and she is also caught up in the artifice of the film's structure – towards the end the distinction between the film's flashback sequences and its present day setting is knowingly collapsed, raising the possibility that Cruz is not just playing the Almodóvar-substitute's mother, but playing herself playing that role – but this is not dwelt upon unduly.
If our thesis is correct, and Pain and Glory is really an introspective film about Pedro Almodóvar considering his own life and the key moments and relationships within it, do we learn much? Well, it does seem that the director is feeling his age a bit, but also that he has lost none of his warmth and compassion, nor his willingness to be open about some of the more intimate elements of his life – if the film is to be interpreted in these terms, the suggestion is that he may not have had the easiest of relationships with his parents, for instance. However, you could certainly argue that the film is arguing that it is through human contact that life acquires genuine significance – it is through recollecting his own first real romance, and before that the initial awakening of his sexual desire, that Salvador begins to find the answers to his own problems and sets out on the path to a kind of redemption.
This is a film about getting older and considering the choices you have made along the way, but it is also an ultimately humane and optimistic one. It is a more measured Almodóvar than has perhaps been the case sometimes in the past, but the director's skill is still fully in evidence. This is a fine and often moving drama.