Spanish director extraordinaire Pedro Almodóvar (Volver, The Skin I Live In) returns with his exquisite Palme d’Or-nominated meditation of love, loss and life, Pain & Glory. And with the story of an ageing filmmaker dealing with his past, it also finds him in semi-autobiographical territory.
The film follows the life of Salvador Mallo (Antonio Banderas), an ageing filmmaker whose chronic illnesses force him into early retirement. The thirtieth anniversary of his celebrated film Sabor surfaces a wave of mixed emotions for Mallo and those he has unresolved dealings with. It ranges from the joyous, such as his loving relationship with his mother (wonderfully played in part by Julieta Serrano and frequent Almodóvar collaborator Penélope Cruz), to more painful times involving the loss of love (Leonardo Sbaraglia) and the failure to sustain meaningful relationships (Asier Etxeandia, who proves himself a scene-stealer).
Mallo’s illness-riddled reality is every hypochondriac’s worst nightmare. A struggle with chronic pain, symbolic of his emotional trauma, finds the retired filmmaker resorting to heroin, and thus risking safety to mitigate his pain. Banderas encapsulates the hard, soft and comedic nature of his character with aplomb, as he remarkably commands that the audience be invested in Mallo’s struggle as it gradually worsens. The actor’s Palme d’Or winning performance is undoubtedly career-defining, and a reminder of what he’s capable of: give him meatier roles, Hollywood.
As he has done in various films before, Almodóvar weaves an intricate narrative structure told outside of chronological order. The interconnecting sequence of present-and-past Mallo (Asier Flores) make for a layered character study, offering insight into a man’s upbringing and recognising how memories, both good and bad, resonate with us into adulthood.
As the title implies, the concept of ‘pain’ and ‘glory’ – whereby life consists of equal parts joy and distress – radiates into every fibre of the film. It’s a contrast that’s even emitted in the candy red and lime green colour palette seen in almost every frame. The pain and glory of sexuality, as in many Almodóvar pictures, are firmly in focus here. From Mallo’s sexual awakening to the heartbreak of first love, Almodóvar explores the pivotal moments of Mallo’s sexuality, while always keeping an eye on the issues of human connection that affect us all. It is a fully realised and refreshing look at queer identity that, contrary to what can be seen with some Western filmmaking sensibilities, allows gay characters to be more than their orientation.
Mallo is a man of quality taste and culture. His extravagant tastes are personified throughout his house by his collection of lavish paintings that feel borrowed from a museum. He is so extra that even his toaster is Dolce & Gabbana. It should come as no surprise that the filmmaker would exhibit such sublime mise en scène; Almodóvar continues to impress with his sharp attention to detail.
Almodóvar again proves himself a filmmaker willing to defy structural conventions and subvert viewer expectations. The long-praised director shows a confident hand here, as he seamlessly guides us through an array of emotions with what feels like a heightened level of self-awareness – both thematically and stylistically.
SCREEN REALM SCORE: ★★★★☆
‘Pain & Glory’ opened in Australian cinemas on November 7.