At 69 years old, it has been a while since Pedro Almodóvar has entered his maturity both as a person and as a director. And this is clearly reflected in the evolution of his work. Gone are the days of his more funny and flamboyant films, like Women on the verge of a nervous breakdown or All about my mother. His last movie, Pain and Glory, which was one of the main attractions of 2019 Cannes Festival edition, is probably his most somber and nostalgic film. However, it still has some traces of the cinema who made him the most acclaimed Spanish director alive, such as some sparkling dialogues, the bright colours of some sets or the aesthetics of its photography.
A good amount of autobiography
Although Almodóvar has always filled his movies with personal stories, Pain and Glory is probably his most autobiographical movie. And the original Spanish filmmaker does not make any effort to hide it. The main character, Salvador Mallo, played by Hollywood star Antonio Banderas, is an aging Spanish director who has earned an international recognition and who is afflicted by all kinds of pains and diseases that limit his work. Even Banderas' hair style and gestures inevitably remind those of Almodóvar. Also it is easy to recognize some elements of Almodóvar biography in the flashbacks where Mallo remembers his childhood and youth.
In fact, I find many of those flashbacks the most interesting moments of an irregular movie, with too many highs and downs. For instance, the stories of Mallo's childhood and the depicted atmosphere of post-war Spain are fascinating. Another Spanish Hollywood star dear to Almodóvar, Penelope Cruz, plays a convincing role as little Mallo's mother, a woman with a strong character that fights to make both ends meet in a family with an absent father. Through the child's eyes, we discover the early passion for cinema in the old open-air cinemas that smelt of “jasmine and urine”, and his first homosexual instincts. Of course, Mallo, like Almodóvar, is gay.
However, maybe the most touching scenes are more recent flashbacks: those of the director's relationship with his late mother few months before dying. The ancient mother is played by Julieta Serrano, a reputed Spanish theatre and cinema actress. And, again, she does an excellent job. Almodóvar’s relationship with his mother is present in many of his movies, and Pain and Glory seems like his last testament. In these flashbacks, she tells him that her friends in the village are bothered by the way they are portrayed in his films, and that she was deeply hurt when he decided not to take her with him to Madrid. “I would have taken care of you … And I would have put up with those things I didn't like, as I have done with so many all my life”, she says to a sorrowful Mallo, who wonders if he has been a bad son just because of his nature.
On the contrary, the weakest point of the film is the plot that happens in present time. The “pain” that the director endures, which is even present in the title, seems a little exaggerated. In one of the introductory scenes, the audience is presented with a long, very long, list of diseases and ailments that torment the main character. In fact, it seems he suffers from almost all kinds of diseases! The scenes where Mallo complains about his several pains, he goes to the doctor, etc, are a little reiterative and they don't bring much to the film. Through personal experience or those of our loved ones, we all know quite well the problems of old age …
And this topic brings us to one of the more controversial aspects of the film: Bandera's performance. The actor received the prize for Best Actor in Cannes festival, and he has been praised with enthusiasm in some critics’ reviews … while being criticised in some others. From my point of view, Bandera's performance suffers from the same ills than his character: some exaggeration. Sometimes, the actor's gestures seem fake. At least, to me. Or maybe it is just that I have some trouble at imagining Banderas being Almodóvar …
In any case, there is no doubt that Pain and Glory represents an interesting evolution of Almodóvar’s work, and it deserves to be watched, especially if you are a fan of his movies. I would not include it among his top films, but it is much better than some other films where the director tried unsuccessfully to explore a new version of his cinema, such as The bad education or I'm so excited!