From the legendary iconoclast Pedro Almodovar (“Dark Habits,” “All About My Mother”), here is his latest, “Pain and Glory.” Where the past Almodovar was quick to shock, showing nuns taking illicit drugs, this film is a meditation on creativity, the fragility of the body and the loss of time. Though it is not as zany or confrontational as his earlier films, some pointed commentary remains, along with his wonderful sense of color and design, not to mention existential haunt.
Salvador (Antonio Banderas) is an aging film director with a host of medical problems. Now a shade of his former self, Salvador is obsessed by childhood memories and relationships, particularly those of his conventional mother (Penelope Cruz and as an older woman, Julieta Serrano) as well as Alberto Crespo (Asier Etxeandia), a favored actor with whom he parted ways many decades before. Salvador yearns to film once more but cannot: his body is wracked in pain from a spinal fusion, he has paralyzing migraines and several frightening choking bouts. Working with a camera is impossible.
Upon hearing about a restoration of his most famous work, Salvador agrees to visit his estranged actor Crespo. The actor is shocked to see him, now whispering and gray. During some small talk, Crespo nonchalantly begins to inhale heroin. Fascinated, Salvador asks if he can join in.
The brusque wall between them crumbles and the director sees Crespo as a fearless figure, someone to aspire to and his alter ego.
The drug carries Salvador back to his mother and his guilt in his dismissal of religion. He also re-lives his lust for the young masonry worker, Albanil (Cesar Vincente). One night while intoxicated, Salvador lets loose a torrent of harsh criticism and he is asked to leave.
Sometime later, the director apologizes, telling Crespo to please perform his monologue as his the actor’s own. As such the director lives through the actor while the house becomes a tomb. The bold colors of Salvador’s house, once a call to freedom and a symbol of honor is now a sarcastic mockery and a prison.
The powdered heroin that he smokes is made from the cave of Salvador’s childhood home. Everything calls him back to his mother.
In one scene, the auteur is shocked that Federico (Leonardo Sbaraglia), an old lover, calls him. Salvador agrees to meet. Though positive, the event is tainted by the absence of youth and their past intimacy. The incident so shakes him that Salvador takes several tranquilizers.
The performances are excellent throughout, as well as is the gradual progression of this haunted narrative. “Pain and Glory” is a portrait of a once rebellious man who is absorbed by memory almost to the point of dissolution. The aspect of brilliant color (an Almodovar trademark) is both a caress from a nostalgic love and a vexing taunt, a salacious tease of what once occurred, but can never be repeated again.
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