Pedro Almodóvar has death on his mind. His own, to be precise – though the hale, 70-year-old director seems to have more than a few good years left. Pain and Glory (2019), his latest, largely autobiographical film, opens with a meditation on mortality voiced by his doppelgänger, a rumpled filmmaker named Salvador Mallo. Antonio Banderas effects an uncanny transformation in the lead role as the director who first discovered him, right down to his tousled grey mop. In the opening scene, the camera traces a scar from Mallo’s navel to his sternum as he sits at the bottom of a swimming pool. His career is stuck in a similar state of suspended animation, crippled by sciatica and writer’s block. Mallo is literally drowning in ideas, but feels he lacks the time and strength to properly execute them. It’s hard not to read this moment as Almodóvar’s own grim admission of defeat.
If that’s the case, though, this film is proof that he’s wrong. It’s the best Almodóvar has made in 15 years, and by far his most personal to date. The chlorinated waters of Mallo’s pool take us back to a rural stream in 1950s Spain – a place and time plucked from Almodóvar’s own childhood – in one of the film’s many fluid leaps through time. There, a young Mallo watches his mother, played by Penélope Cruz, wash clothes with other village women. We follow his family as they move to another village, where they take up residence in a whitewashed cave. Oblivious to his mother’s shame at their poverty, young Mallo delights in the curved walls and skylights of their new home. We even sense, as sun pours in through a circular aperture, that we are witnessing a filmmaker being born.
Soon, we’re back in the present, where Mallo encounters another ghost from his past. When a Madrid arthouse cinema plans a 32nd anniversary screening of his iconic film Sabor (Flavour), Mallo is asked to reconnect with its star, Alberto Crespo, and invites him to participate in a Q&A session. The two have not spoken since the film’s release, following a fight over the actor’s performance. During their tense reunion, they share a ‘peace pipe’ of heroin: Crespo, played by Asier Etxeandia, has become a deadbeat junkie, while Mallo is desperate to ease his own physical pain. As their relationship further unravels and Mallo’s addiction deepens, the film gestures back to a troubled chapter of Almodóvar’s own life, at the height of Spain’s heroin epidemic. In 1987, while preparing for the release of Law of Desire, his most ambitious film then to date, he grew unhappy with Eusebio Poncela’s star performance as the director Pablo Quintero, another obvious proxy for Almodóvar himself. Poncela’s brooding lothario hardly resembled Almodóvar, whose whimsical sense of humour is well known. Poncela may have struggled with addiction himself; what’s certain is the two never worked together again. In a particularly tense scene in Pain and Glory, Mallo accuses Crespo of adding a ‘heaviness’ to the role that he never intended – but one he has ultimately come to accept. In staging an imagined confrontation with Poncela, Almodóvar might be trying finally to make amends.
References to Almodovár’s filmography abound as cinematic parallels to Mallo’s narrative flashbacks. When Mallo can’t get his hands on heroin, he takes prescription painkillers that he crushes with a knife blade, in scenes that instantly recall the iconic gazpacho scene from Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown (1988). Each time he falls into a drug-induced stupor, we visit moments in his childhood that contributed to his artistic and sexual awakening: a structure that rhymes with Bad Education (2004).
If that film hinged on the destructive effects of sexual abuse, Pain and Glory tells a more benign story of childhood development. Seven-year-old Mallo befriends a handsome older boy, an illiterate day labourer, and teaches him to read; one afternoon, after a sweaty day of work tiling the family’s kitchen, the boy strips off his clothes and takes a sponge bath beneath their skylight. Mallo is so overcome with desire that he faints. It’s a frank depiction of pre-adolescent sexuality unmatched in the history of film. The play of light on wet skin and the sound of cicadas humming gently as water sloshes make the scene as intoxicating as any in Federico Fellini’s Amarcord (1973), that classic love letter to small-town life. Indeed, in marked contrast to Almodóvar’s high-camp Volver (2006) – his last film to take place mostly in a rural setting – the textures of Pain and Glory are so rich they seem grafted from real life.
So, too, does Mallo’s encounter with a former lover, who visits the director’s apartment (Almodóvar’s own) during a trip to Madrid from Argentina. Mallo, a lonely and single gay man, listens tearfully as Federico tells him of his wife and children. The two reminisce about the times they shared together and apologize for the hurt they both caused each other. Their romantic parting kiss may be the first in mainstream cinema between two older men. It’s not clear if the scene is truly autobiographical, but surely Almodóvar would welcome closure just like the rest of us.
What happened to the master of melodrama, the Spanish queen of camp? Artifice has long been a kind of armour for Almodóvar – as it is for many queer artists – against the dreary intolerances of the world. How powerful, then, that the director should now come to us so naked, his vulnerabilities stripped bare for all to see. Mallo may have too many ideas in his head, but Almodóvar knows exactly which of them to show us. Long may he reign.