Making movies is hard.
Well, let me clarify — making movies is like anything else. Making a crappy one is easier than making a great one.
But producing and directing and making a movie in general is a physically demanding task. There is the endless sitting while one types a script (and then at the other end, while one edits). There is the often-stressful organization of various elements: quite literally lights, camera and action, not to mention sets, design, location and a thousand other details, the buck for all of which stops with the producer or the director. Not to mention the 12- or 16-hour shoots. It takes a toll even on the most able-bodied filmmaker.
After a certain age, the body starts to break down, some bodies faster than others. And even the most fit and devout and visionary filmmakers must slow down. And if an artist can no longer make their art, then what happens?
On a surface level, this is the concern of "Pain and Glory," writer-director Pedro Almodóvar’s latest film. It is also his latest reminder to the audience that his claim to "greatest living filmmaker" is as valid as anyone’s.
And I make a distinction here between "the audience" and "his audience." "His" audience will follow Almodóvar through better ("All About My Mother," "Volver," a dozen more) and worse ("I’m So Excited," we’ll never forget you). "The" audience is everyone else, the folks who know he is great but might get scared off by how prolific he is. This, his 21st feature, is for both.
We first see filmmaker Salvador Mallo (a stellar Antonio Banderas, playing a director who might or might not be Almodóvar with the serial numbers filed off) floating underwater in a pool, motionless — is he meditating? Unable to move? On the verge of revelation?
We soon learn two things: Salvador is in a state of constant pain (tinnitus, endless headaches, asthma, sciatica) and he is thinking about his past a great deal. There are many flashbacks to his youth in a small Spanish town, young Salvador (Asier Flores) spending most of his time with his mother, Jacinta (Penélope Cruz).
His father is a laborer; all they can afford is what Jacinta calls a cave but looks more to contemporary eyes as a primitive basement apartment. (The "pious lady" from the local seminary who wants to take Salvador to get an education compares it to the catacombs where early Christians hid — very Franco-era Spanish Catholic). Soon, Salvador becomes friends with a local laborer named Eduardo (César Vicente), whom he teaches to read.
In the present day, Salvador’s pain has precipitated a creative crisis, and he mostly hangs around his lovely Madrid apartment (played by Almodóvar’s actual Madrid apartment!). That’s not to mention the fact that one of his older films, "Sabor," is being re-released and feted.
This puts him into contact with Alberto Crespo (Asier Etxeandia), the lead from "Sabor." He and Salvador haven’t spoken in decades and end up reconnecting as Crespo introduces Salvador to heroin, which both mitigates Salvador’s physical pain and enhances his childhood reveries.
Meanwhile, Salvador also is trying to clarify and put on bow on his complex relationship to his guilt-inducing mother, now elderly and near death (Julieta Serrano, whose casting is itself an Almodóvar in-joke).
When an old lover comes to visit in the most circuitous of ways, it’s another reminder of his physicality, a moment that forces him to confront his creative crisis, his increasing fondness for heroin and how to navigate his own past without it (like the heroin) getting him lost completely.
"Pain and Glory" manages to comment upon and subvert an astonishing number of themes Almodóvar has worked with before: his complicated relationship with his family, his Franco-era childhood, nostalgia, drugs, creativity, personal transformation, the line between memoir and fiction and bodies, always bodies — our lust for them, our dependence on them, our need to play with their limits.
Hardcore Almodóvar fans will swoon at the metatextural layers herein, but more casual cineastes, fans of excellent cinema wherever it can be found, will also marvel at the control over tone, pacing, palette and emotion, a beautiful film about film and the process of making it from one of the all-time greats.