At one point in Pedro Almodovar’s “Pain and Glory,” an elderly mother is telling a story to her son, a Spanish director named Salvador (Antonio Banderas) who is an obvious stand-in for Almodovar himself. Halfway through telling the story, she stops and narrows his eyes at him. “Don’t get that storyteller look,” she says, admonishing him not to turn her past into his art.
Almodovar definitely has the “storyteller look” in “Pain and Glory,” his most overtly personal film yet. While Almodovar’s outrageous plots, ranging from Hitchcockian pastiche (“Broken Embraces”) to sex farce (“I’m So Excited!”), have always had an undercurrent of personal feeling, he’s never been more overtly autobiographical than he is here.
In a sense, “Pain and Glory” is a very familiar sort of movie for a veteran filmmaker to make, a film about a veteran filmmaker looking back at the mistakes he made and the art he created over his long life. But this is still an Almodovar film, so its spin on memory and mortality is playful as well as poignant.
Banderas, a long-time collaborator with Almodovar (“Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down” and “The Skin I Live In”), is brilliant as Salvador. Salvador is wracked with chronic pain (a detail taken from Almodovar’s life), and watching the still-handsome Banderas gingerly move around like a man 20 years older is striking.
Salvador’s physical pain is in a way a manifestation of his emotional trauma; after his mother (played by another longtime Almodovar muse, Penelope Cruz, in flashbacks) died several years earlier, the pain started. Salvador finds himself creatively blocked and unable to work, instead puttering around his gorgeous hart, which is covered in works of art, but no personal photos.
A local film society invites him to present a screening of one of his earliest films, accompanied by the star of that film, Alberto Crespo (Asier Etxeianda). Salvador and Alberto had a falling out after the film was made, and reconnecting brings up old wounds.
It also gives Salvador the chance to develop a surprising new habit – Alberto turns him on to heroin. Adrift in a drug-fueled haze, Salvador’s mind wanders into the past, as a young boy devoted to his mother, as a young man involved in a tragic relationship. When Salvador reconnects with that old lover, now a married man, it’s the most heart-rending scene in the film, as Banderas’ lets Salvador’s defenses fall and reveal his gentle, lovelorn heart.
“Pain and Glory” moves from past to present, episode to episode, rummaging through Salvador’s mind as he makes peace with the key events of his life and searches for a way forward with the time he has left. Almodovar makes this internal trip a spellbinding and soulful exercise – whatever other things he has in common with his avatar here, being creatively blocked isn’t one of them.