Salvador Mallo’s glory is in the past; his present is filled with pain. When we first see the director (Antonio Banderas in a stunning performance), he’s seated in a chair at the bottom of a pool. The camera circles his body, the scars on his back evidence of his agony. He’s also depressed, suffers from migraines as well as frightening fits of coughing that leave him gasping for breath. While he continues to write, his injuries and illnesses limit his ability to direct.
Mallo still has a following and his most famous film, Sabor, has been restored and a screening scheduled. Not wanting to face the event alone, Mallo reaches out to the film’s lead actor, Alberto Crespo (Asier Etxeandia). The two parted badly and haven’t spoken for 30 years. Alberto was using heroin during the shoot and Mallo felt that the drug use impacted the actor’s performance. Alberto is still using, but this time Mallo joins him, the drug providing a respite from the director’s pain.
Almodóvar and Banderas are a team, having worked together on eight films in four decades. (Although they were estranged for a time, as are the men in the film.) So it’s not surprising that the director would trust the actor in a film that closely mirrors his own life. Mallo’s apartment is actually Almodóvar’s, and Banderas wears some of the director’s clothes. Yet to see the film as autobiographical is to overlook that Almodóvar is dealing with universal issues that resonate, particularly with an aging audience.
Mallo was destined for greatness, overcoming a childhood in poverty, raised by an absent father and a domineering mother, Jacinta (Penélope Cruz, another actor with a close working relationship with Almodóvar). In the first of many flashbacks precipitated by his drug use, we see a young Mallo (Asier Flores) watching as his mother and other women wash clothes in a stream and then spread them out on bushes to dry.
Shortly after, the family leaves their village and moves into a cave, the only housing Mallo’s father can afford. Jacinta is a force, and soon she’s enlisted a local handyman, Eduardo (César Vicente), to white wash the cave’s walls and install tiles. In exchange for the work, Mallo will teach Eduardo to read and write. The scenes between the young Mallo and Eduardo are touching. And when Eduardo undresses to wash himself before leaving, Mallo can’t look away, an early indication of his homosexuality.
The sparring continues between Mallo and Alberto. To placate Alberto, as well as pay him back for the heroin, Mallo gives him a one-man play he wrote about his former lover, Federico (Leonardo Sbaraglia). The play within a film is beautifully performed by Etxeandia, and the emotional impact is felt by Federico, who attends the performance. Later Federico visits Mallo at home. Although Federico is now married with children, he still cares deeply for Mallo and offers to stay the evening. After a passionate kiss, Mallo declines and bids his lover a bittersweet goodbye.
Mallo’s relationship with his elderly mother (played by Julieta Serrano) does not improve over time. She tells him he was a bad son and accuses him of abandoning her. Mallo was unable to grant her a last wish, to die in her village instead of in the hospital.
Despite the heavy themes, Pain and Glory is an uplifting film. Although a loner, Mallo finds he’s not alone, and with a physician giving him new hope for controlling his physical pain, he knows that he will once again be able to create. The final scene makes that clear.
Photo credit: Manolo Pavón/Sony Pictures Classics