Salvador Mallo (Antonio Banderas) is a world-renowned Spanish film director who has come to the conclusion that he should be retiring, since he feels he does not have it in him to make movies anymore. The result of this is that he has become very reflective, thinking on his past - his body of work as well as his childhood, which he spent in a small village with his mother (Penélope Cruz) as his father was mostly absent. But there is one film of his that has been reassessed over the years as his masterpiece, and he is at a loss to explain why, for he never liked the lead performance of star Alberto Crespo (Asier Etxeandia)... could it be that Salvador was wrong about it after all this?
Director Pedro Almodóvar has more range than might first appear to be the case, as over his filmography he tackled comedy and drama, with diversions even into thriller and horror, which he approached with gusto and, when required, sensitivity that often took the viewer by surprise, taking the absurd seriously and sometimes vice versa. So what was to be made of Pain and Glory, or Dolor y Gloria as it was originally called, where all his customary attraction to the outrageous in life was dialled down to the point that proceedings came across as muted and oddly remorseful, as if at this late stage in his career he was having regrets about his choice and relating that through Banderas?
Banderas was probably his biggest discovery, a Spaniard who had successfully broken free of his homeland's cinema to become an international star, but one who in his earlier work with Almodóvar had proven himself not just a handsome face and could bring genuine skill and depth to his roles should the material demand it. That was assuredly what he was doing here, a performance greatly sympathetic to the circumstances of the piece, though only its writer and director would be able to tell you precisely how autobiographical it was. True, both star and director had spent a long time away from each other after that first flush of success, so was Alberto really meant to be Antonio?
The impression was big time fans of this talent could pore over the movie and try to work out what was accurate to life and what was artistic license, but did that effectively render it the artiest fan service imaginable? There was a strong element of that, though the person Pedro seemed to be, uh, servicing the most was himself, as his stand-in struggled to reconcile a life devoted to his muse and the relationships that had suffered as a result. What to do when you had reached the pinnacle of that career and were left with all these plaudits, a list of films many regarded as classics, yet when it came down to it were cold comfort when you were so desperately lonely? You would not like to think that applied to this director, but when the mommy issues once again raised their head, you suspected otherwise.
Cruz lit up the screen as the Earth mother of a parent who is fiercely protective of her sensitive son in the flashbacks, though in the modern day scenes a different actress played her at the end of her life, Julieta Serrano, making a return to the Almodóvar canon after decades - you could see a theme not so much developing as thundering in all guns blazing, he was sorry for all the emotional turmoil he had created in his endeavours to secure that perfect film. This was so emphatic on that count that Pain and Glory was almost too heavy on the pain, which made it both embarrassing to watch if indeed it did apply to the director's concerns in his personal life, and so doleful that its moments of levity and visual captivation were not quite enough to sustain it. What did keep you watching was Banderas, a beautifully judged performance that had full understanding of what was required of him yet never lapsed into grandstanding, he was careful and perceptive in every scene, and it was he you would watch for, not indulgence of the questioning man at the helm. Music by Alberto Iglesias.