It would be a mistake to assume that Pedro Almodóvar’s Pain & Glory is the Spanish director’s literal autobiography. Rather, as he told HFPA journalists at its North American premiere in Toronto, it should be considered a work of “auto-fiction”: “Everything that is in the movie is very familiar to me, but it doesn't mean that I experienced everything. I know the paths where the character of Antonio is, but I never... I mean sometimes I didn't (take) the same direction (as) him.” The film’s protagonist, Salvador (Antonio Banderas) is a middle-aged film director in a creative crisis; his body racked with pain and regret, he will find renewed creative impulse by revisiting his past. At one-point Antonio exclaims that “without filmmaking, life is meaningless” – and it is hard not to see how this applies to Almodóvar’s own life. And the film does revisit aspects of the director’s past starting with the casting of his original collaborator and alter-ego Antonio Banderas.
The first scene of the movie sets the tone: Salvador Mallo is floating in a swimming pool, hoping that the weightlessness in the water will ease his excruciating back pain that makes it impossible for him to work. He is reflecting on his life, his shattered relationships, his failures, his personal and professional searing highs, and his utterly devastating lows. Salvador is supposed to attend a retrospective of his films and do a dreaded Q&A. He is trying to convince the actor he made famous many decades ago – Alberto Crespo (Asier Exteandia) to join him. The reconnection will set in motion a plot in which Antonio revisits the loss and loves of his life – beginning with the intense relationship with his mother (Penélope Cruz). Almodóvar admits that Pain & Glory was informed by his own experience but holds steadfast that the actual events in the film are not autobiographical. It is, however, a deeply personal film for him and a moving one for the viewer.
Pain & Glory is a tender and well-crafted film by a master at the top of his game, and both Banderas and Cruz prove once again that they are able to deliver some of their most outstanding work under their mentor’s guidance. And Spain’s most famous director proves that with this story of an auteur’s declining career, his own is definitely more than fine.