In Pain and Glory, a number of scenes take place in an austere village home carved out of the ground, where the rock walls have been painted bright white. It’s stark, and therefore uncharacteristic of Spanish director Pedro Almodovar’s usual visual design, which is defined by vivacious colors and patterns. But it’s also fitting for the film, as Pain and Glory is one of Almodovar’s least exuberant productions. It’s also one of his best.
That underground abode is the childhood home of Salvador Mallo (Antonio Banderas), a revered film director who has become something of a recluse in late middle age due to various health maladies. Left to his pills and physical therapy, he mostly drifts back to the days of his bright youth, when as a boy (Asier Flores) he would talk movies with his hard-working mother (Penelope Cruz) and tutor the other children in the village. For the older Salvador, who can no longer tie his own shoes and must put a pillow on the floor when he kneels on the ground, life is something that existed in the past.
Until, that is, a few occurrences mix past and present. Reuniting with Alberto (Asier Etxeandia), an actor he once feuded with, Salvador is convinced to let Alberto stage a one-man show based on a memoir piece that Salvador had privately written. A former lover (Leonardo Sbaraglia) who is featured in the memoir happens to attend the performance, and is moved to reconnect with Salvador. In between all this, Salvador’s memories float in and out of his days, interwoven by Almodovar and editor Teresa Font with a liminal elegance.
Banderas, a longtime Almodovar collaborator who this time plays his stand-in, delivers a somber portrait of extinguished artistic ambition. You can see there is still a creative spark in Salvador’s eyes, even as you recognize in his stiff, careful movements that his body can no longer keep the fire kindled. Banderas has a powerhouse moment when Federico, the former lover, visits Salvador. Tears well up in Salvador’s eyes as Federico talks of the family he started after he and Salvador split, but rather than let them explode into an exclamation point, Salvador tamps them down, gathers himself, and then asks the crucial question: “Do you have a partner now?”
There’s a sliver of hope—an acknowledgement of a potential future—in that query. Commingled with more memories, including some of his mother (a spirited Julieta Serrano) in the last years of her life, these visits from the past nudge Salvador out of his stupor. One memory in particular—set in that white-walled home and filmed by Almodovar as a breathtaking depiction of sexual awakening—becomes the basis for a potential new film project.
It’s during that heightened flashback that we realize Pain and Glory hasn’t been as dour as we might have first thought. Indeed, we remember the kaleidoscopic opening credits, which mesmerizingly meld shapes and colors, as well as the various clothing and wall patterns that have provided vibrancy all film long. And then there are the colorful tiles that Salvador’s mother has installed on one of those barren white walls. The final shot, which I won’t give away, revisits one of Salvador’s sadder memories, but this time with a glowing lighting scheme, courtesy of cinematographer Jose Luis Alcaine, that’s worthy of Rembrandt. The past, Pain and Glory ultimately suggests, is what we create of it.