Once scandalous, the movies of Pedro Almodóvar have been cooling down for decades as the Spanish bad boy has aged into a legend. Films like “Matador,” “Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!” and “Live Flesh” are startling for how casually the director challenges conventions, mixing melodrama and outré carnality with an unshakeable generosity of spirit. After “All About My Mother,” Almodóvar’s wildness began to ebb and flow, though the generosity has deepened, even in the underrated and somewhat anomalous horror film, “The Skin I Live In.”
“Pain and Glory,” Almodóvar’s newest slipstream, is explicitly obsessed by the potential tempering of passion that comes with aging. Salvador Mallo (Antonio Banderas) is a filmmaker in the Almodóvar cloth, who’s built his reputation on autobiographical gay melodramas. With wild graying hair and a penchant for turtlenecks, Banderas even somewhat resembles his collaborator, who was instrumental in his own cinematic ascension. Such reverberations power this intensely moving production, a consciously late-period work in Almodóvar’s canon.
Come to think of it, “cooling down” might not be quite right as a description of Almodóvar’s modern work—the emotional ferocity is still there, it’s just been redirected.
“Pain and Glory” throbs less with desire than with anxiety and longing, though the characters guard themselves with a peculiar and real form of evasion. They speak openly about themselves, yet don’t act on their self-analysis, remaining in stasis. It’s a way of having your cake and eating it too, flushing some frustration out in a low-stakes manner.
“Pain and Glory” is composed of overlapping sketches in which the morose Salvador struggles to become active again in his life. Salvador is rich, handsome and beloved by cinephiles, but he’s hung up on issues that gradually rise to the fore of the narrative. Little incidents keep unearthing ghosts of Salvador’s past, such as the premiere of his first, career-starting film, which puts him back in contact with its star, Alberto (Asier Etxeandia).
Alberto and Salvador fell out decades ago over creative issues with the former’s performance, though the two decide to precariously resume their collaborative relationship. A conventional director might imbue these scenes with solemn intensity, but Almodóvar has a relaxed touch, even when Salvador begins to smoke and snort heroin with Alberto. The sunny, wry, somewhat defeated mood of these scenes asks “At this age, why not?” Eventually Alberto and Salvador are answering questions at a screening of their film via phone, so that no one can see their snorting and drinking.
The sketchlike quality of “Pain and Glory” is effectively utilized by Almodóvar to communicate Salvador’s ennui, freeing him, and us, from the relentless forward momentum of a traditional three-act screenplay. Even as revelations pile up, such as when Salvador confesses that he’s not over the death of his mother, Almodóvar maintains a tone of quasi-comic bittersweetness. This relaxation allows one to pore over the film’s intimate sense of detail, especially in terms of Banderas’s extraordinary performance.
Banderas informs Salvador with a poignant tremulousness, communicating the character’s ailments and recession. There’s a sense in “Pain and Glory” that Salvador’s resurfacing past might be capable of extinguishing his regal yet hunched frame.
In “Pain and Glory,” as in many other Almodóvar films, art, cinema, religion and love suggest multiple dimensions coexisting within a fluid reality. “Pain and Glory” might move at a more deliberate gallop than older Almodóvar films, but it’s still realized with a pulsating sense of color that physicalizes the emotions thrumming under the characters’ resigned faces.
Salvador’s apartment, clad in bright red paint and vibrant paintings, is a testament to the unbridled passion he experienced in youth, when making his first films while struggling with the blossoming heroin addiction of his lover, Federico (Leonardo Sbaraglia), who resurfaces after catching Alberto’s performance of one of Salvador’s shelved monologues. In theory, this all sounds contrived and belabored, but Almodóvar informs these turns with a sense of inevitability.
The film’s structure is fascinating. Salvador’s childhood, in which his mother is played by the ever-luminous Penélope Cruz, becomes fodder for a monologue that traces Salvador’s blossoming sexuality and his first and perhaps only true love, which brings said love back into his life. This monologue would have never been performed had a screening of an older film not thrusted Salvador and Alberto back together, and so forth. In this film, art exerts a powerful influence on life, as art is Salvador’s true religion. This idea puts Salvador somewhat at odds with his mother, who’s played in nearly-present day sequences by Julieta Serano.
If the scenes with Cruz in Valencia are hearty and rapturous, with the actress’s radiance physicalizing Salvador’s adoration for his mother, the moments with Serano and Banderas are utterly heartbreaking — as pure and cathartic as any passages in Almodóvar’s canon.
As Salvador and his mother recriminate one another for past slights, they nevertheless radiate love and the tragedy is that this love is obvious to us but perhaps not to them. When Salvador apologizes, saying that “I have failed you, simply for being the way I am,” he’s confronting and encapsulating every longing and inadequacy that drove him to create art, and that now threaten his ability to continue to create it.