Pedro Almodóvar has mellowed into wisdom. His new movie Pain and Glory (Dolor y gloria) recounts that battle by leaving behind the old transgressive mischief of Almodóvar’s early up-from-underground films (Law of Desire, Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown) for a display of graceful sagacity.
Salvador Mallo, a middle-aged Spanish filmmaker played by a sensitive, charmingly grizzled and gray-haired Antonio Banderas, is celebrated for his folk-punk audacity. The poster for Mallo’s best-known film, Sabor (Taste), boasts a strawberried tongue sticking out of lubricious lips like the Rolling Stones logo. Mallo is from the counterculture generation, yet he has risen to respectability. Note that in Chinatown, John Huston averred, “I’m old. Politicians, public buildings, and whores all get respectable if they last long enough.” Almodóvar taunts that truism with Mallo’s rebel tendency toward recreational drugs and lassitude whenever possible.
Not simply autobiographical, this portrait of personal indulgence points toward honesty, benevolence, and forgiveness — virtues missing in most counterculture egoists who look back on the indiscretions of their halcyon past as merit badges. Mallo remembers the people who graced his life and agitated it: old lovers, first desires, a sacrificial mother who becomes judgmental. He also confronts his own vain egotism. (The title must nod to John Boorman’s Hope and Glory. If so, then an Almodóvar version of Boorman’s follow-up, Queen and Country, will be exquisite.)
With Pain and Glory, Almodóvar has made a self-critical film in an era lacking self-awareness. No wonder some critics dismiss it as “soft.” They never understood Almodóvar’s bemused permissiveness. In 1987’s Law of Desire, it was buoyantly humane. In that film, Almodóvar’s perspective on a promiscuous gay filmmaker, his transsexual sibling, and a psychopathic lover made the ingenious mix of sex farce and thriller joyful, not merely shocking. In the era of “soft power,” Almodóvar’s humanity avoids pushing a political agenda. In Pain and Glory, compassion and forgiveness are more important than any radical progressivism for understanding Mallo.
Pain and Glory dramatizes the battle of experience — of despair versus perseverance and triumph. Mallo keeps looking back, comparing fond memories with regret, while enduring the infirmities of aging. Some of Almodóvar’s funniest devices here detail the machinery of modern medicine — colorful clinical procedures shown as psychedelic wonders, proving Mallo’s own tough resilience. These contrast with memories of growing up poor in exurban caves with his mother (first played sensuously by Penelope Cruz and later magnificently by Julieta Serrano, who was the wronged, vengeful housewife in Women on the Verge) and then achieving high-toned class and the appurtenances of sophistication.
Always a rascal, Mallo is honest about his mediocrity and luck. He describes his Catholic upbringing as “On days when I suffer, I’m only half an atheist.” Yet his past recall and later life are full of blessings.
Almodóvar does his finest filmmaking when young Mallo (Asier Flores) realizes the thrill of teaching a good-looking worker (César Vicente) to write: Two innocent hands touch, and Almodóvar imbues their innocence with ecstasy. Terence Davies would blush at the simple ecstatic image. Seeking relief, adult Mallo “chases the dragon” (smokes heroin) with Alberto (Asier Etxeandia), an actor-antagonist and amoral sensualist who is hip to his tricks. And, in the film’s finest, existential moment, Mallo encounters an old flame, Federico (Leonardo Sbaraglia).
The face-to-face, mirror-like image of romantic Federico and reckless Mallo defines the essence of homosexual attraction, something even Almodóvar’s hero-genius Jean Cocteau barely did. All these performances (Pain and Glory is the best-acted film of year) idealize complicated human relations. Cinematographer José Luis Alcaine presents Almodóvar’s vision with pellucid imagery. The clarity of the film’s lighting sees life experience with depth and beneficence. Almodóvar and Alcaine admit to cinematic make-believe and soulful confession, and then achieve pure visualized emotion.