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  • Writer's pictureBen Turner

Pain And Glory ****

Starring: Antonio Banderas, Penélope Cruz, Asier Etxeandia, Leonardo Sbaraglia, Nora Nevas

Director: Pedro Almódovar

Country: Spain

Pedro Almódovar (All About My Mother, Bad Education, Volver) has been relatively quiet in recent years. With only three movies under his belt this decade, none of which are mentioned in the same bracket as his greatest movies that had been a consecutive run of hit after hit, it seemed like maybe he had peaked fifteen years ago. But today his name carries weight, so when it was announced that he was to create a work of autofiction about his life, it was intriguing enough to get audiences and critics at Cannes all aflutter. And rightly so.

Antonio Banderas (Evita, The Legend Of Zorro, The Skin I Live In) stars as Salvador, a successful movie director with more than a passing resemblance to Almódovar. Asked to appear at a retrospective screening of one of his greatest movies in Madrid, he reconnects with its star (Etxeandia) for the first time in thirty years with whom he had parted acrimoniously. He finds him just as he used to be; a heroin addict. But as an older man, he no longer condemns him and even tries the drug, on which he becomes quickly hooked and so the slide into addiction begins. Having previously struggled with a heroin-addicted partner (Sbaraglia), he feels hypocritical for his newfound vice but justifies it for its ability to cure the pain of his numerous health problems. But as his manager (Nevas) struggles to maintain his professional commitments, it becomes increasingly clear that there are issues in his past that he must come to terms with. Told through frequent extended flashbacks, we see his childhood, living with his mother (Penélope Cruz – Vicky Cristina Barcelona, Volver, Nine) in a village made of caves, where he teaches the locals to read and write.

Banderas gives a remarkable performance as the director, who is wise, gentle but passionate and whose prestige comes as a heavy burden. Having risen to fame in Almódovar’s movies, he was estranged from the director for 21 years (sound familiar) but suffered a massive heart attack two years ago. Now, with his appearance and demeanour vulnerable, subtle and so similar to Almódovar’s, it’s easy to feel like you’re watching an autobiography, but if it is one, it’s certainly not a flattering one. But it certainly worked well for Banderas, who won Best Actor at Cannes for his performance.

By branding it as autofiction – a term discussed in the movie simply to highlight that this is what this is – we know there are similarities between what we are seeing on screen and reality, though only Almódovar will know to what extent. But with the set of Salvador’s home actually Almódovar’s real house, I would wager the movie is closer to the truth than he might want to admit. However, we do know that the scenes about his addiction and some of the sequences with his mother have been confirmed as the fictitious side of the script.

Penélope Cruz is glorious as his mother; warm, beautiful but fierce, whose ambition for something better in life is transferred onto her son. The flashback sequences are by far the most interesting in the film, with a sexual awakening scene highly reminiscent of Bad Education. But unlike most of his work, whose narratives are tight, this is an episodic piece whose scenes drop seeds that are not fully explored to completion, which is frustrating at times. And though there are moments of coincidence that could only be fiction (the picture in the art gallery, for example) the structure is a constant reminder that real life doesn’t have a tidy narrative and loose ends do not always get tied up. But again, this makes you wonder how much of this autofiction really is fiction.

This has the visual flair that has become Almódovar’s trademark. The film is drenched in vibrant colours, lit in high contrast and accompanied by a luscious soundtrack. There is a lengthy animated sequence that illustrates Salvador’s daily physical pain, which serves as an unusual but effective device to highlight its importance as a motivation. But if it looks and sounds cinematic, Almódovar shows an uncharacteristic level of restraint in his storytelling. For fans of the director, this will come as a satisfying treat, but is likely to leave newcomers to his cannon somewhat cold. If you’re the former, you’ll love it. If you’re the latter, go and see the rest of his films and then you will love it too.


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