By Glenn Heath Jr.
Surveying the contradictions and gaps inherent to memory has been one of Pedro Almodóvar’s hallmark interests over the course of his four-decade filmmaking career. These narratives have been routed through genres as diverse as the ghost story (“Volver”) and revenge film (“Bad Education”), but they all share an elegiac sense of longing for lives cut short by circumstance and trauma.
In this sense, “Pain & Glory” feels like a culmination of sorts for the Spanish director. He based the film on his own experiences with chronic discomfort and creative inertia, and how those experiences shaped recollections of the past.
Antonio Banderas plays the very Almodóvar-looking Salvador Mallo, a world-renowned Madrid-based auteur who has become a near-recluse thanks to an assortment of crippling physical and emotional ailments. The scars on is hobbled body have nothing on those marking his mind.
Without relying on the crutch of genre or melodrama, “Pain & Glory” embraces Salvador’s tumultuous cycle of potential self-destruction. He begins a new friendship with the estranged heroin-smoking star of his first international hit, and quickly realizes the elating healing effects of narcotics use.
Instead of wading into the muddy waters of inevitable tragedy, Almodóvar utilizes the addiction arc to explore Salvador’s memories (and by turn his own) of his childhood. A sublime dance between the past and present ensues. Banderas’ performance becomes the constant in the center, fluctuating between mournful disappointment and the nervous anticipation for artistic rebirth.
The film’s most beautiful moments are its simplest: young Salvador listening to his mother (Penelope Cruz) and her friends sing by the river; a swooning kiss between long lost lovers; and the cozy, warmly lit interiors of a cave that’s been turned into a home.
“Pain & Glory” (opening Friday, October 18, at Harkins Camelview at Fashion Square 14) finds the necessary solace in these small moments for an artist to see himself anew separate from the torment that has long been self-inflicted.