Almodovar's Pain & Glory 'a beautifully calibrated, semi-autobiographical memory maze'

Pedro Almodovar reunites with Antonio Banderas for the meditative drama Pain & Glory. Damon Smith reviews...

Antonio Banderas as Salvador Mallo in Pain & Glory
Damon Smith

TIME has been a benevolent mistress to two-time Oscar winner Pedro Almodovar.

The Spanish writer-director has mellowed with age and honed his craft behind the camera with tenderly observed character studies including All About My Mother and Talk To Her.

That personal touch serves him well in his self-reflective latest feature, Pain & Glory, a beautifully calibrated, semi-autobiographical memory maze, which reunites Almodovar with leading man Antonio Banderas.

"Gossip grows old, like people," observes one of the characters in this bittersweet drama.

The ravages of time on body and mind are a central theme in Almodovar's script, which artfully stitches together key moments from a film director's life as he prepares to go under a surgeon's scalpel.

Banderas delivers one of the most compelling performances of his illustrious career, peeling back layers of regret and despair from a man in physical agony, who has temporarily forgotten the unabashed love of art and humanity instilled in him by his spirited mother.

Pacing is gentle as Almodovar draws on personal experience (pivotal scenes were shot in his real-life apartment) to inform the lead character's haphazard journey to calling a truce with his past.

The best days of filmmaker Salvador Mallo (Banderas) are behind him as he stumbles, literally and figuratively, through middle age with crippling back pain.

"Without filming, my life is meaningless," he laments to long-suffering assistant Mercedes (Nora Navas).

When a local cinema hosts a screening of a newly restored print of Sabor, one of his most celebrated films, Salvador nervously extends the hand of friendship to its handsome star, Alberto Crespo (Asier Etxeandia).

It has been 30 years since the two men spoke after a stark difference of opinion about Alberto's drug use.

Salvador's appreciation of his work was coloured by the faltering relationship and only now can he separate personal grief from creative glory.

"Your eyes have changed, darling. The film's the same," purrs old actor pal Zulema (Cecilia Roth).

Salvador and Alberto's awkward reunion, eased by deep inhalations of heroin fumes, sparks vivid memories of a bucolic childhood in Paterna, where nine-year-old Salvador (Asier Flores) orbited his mother Jacinta (Penelope Cruz).

She hired a hunky labourer (Cesar Vicente) to repaint the walls of the family's cave-like home and this virile male presence kindled Salvador's sexual awakening.

Pain & Glory is galvanised by Banderas's understated yet powerful central performance.

Every inch of his body seems to thrum with anguish as he pieces together a mosaic of reminiscence to the swooning strains of composer Alberto Iglesias's orchestral score.

Past and present entwine like long-lost lovers in Almodovar's script, which reaches an emotional crescendo with a tender exchange between Salvador and his married old flame (Leonardo Sbaraglia).

The human body may falter, sometimes catastrophically, but love never dies.

Rating: 9/10

Released: August 23

PAIN & GLORY (15, 113 mins) Drama/Romance. Antonio Banderas, Asier Etxeandia, Penelope Cruz, Leonardo Sbaraglia, Asier Flores, Cesar Vicente, Julieta Serrano, Nora Navas, Cecilia Roth. Director: Pedro Almodovar.


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