Since it was first announced, fans have largely assumed that Pedro Almodovar’s latest film is semi-autobiographical, pouring over every detail of the film to uncover new parallels. His film follows an openly gay filmmaker as he reminisces on his childhood and his prior filmography, with the lead character’s name even being scrutinised due to featuring every letter of the director’s surname (albeit with a few added letters thrown in, but that didn’t calm the fan theories). And yet, to my eyes, the parallels began and ended with these basic facts everybody knows about Almodovar, as Pain and Glory (Dolor y Gloria) is more of an interrogation as to why he continues to look for inspiration to make films, as opposed to an autobiographical journey through his own past.
Using his long term muse Antonio Banderas in the lead role of Salvador Mallo, the character isn’t an extension of the director so much as an alternate reality version; one whose passion to make films has dulled with age, and chooses to re-examine his history in order to find the creative spark once again. It’s a stunning return to form for the director, feeling less like a swan song as some previously imagined, but rather the close of one chapter and the opening of another – a film about filmmaking that strips the inherently pretentious nature of that premise to reveal the emotional motivations that inspire people to share their stories.
Salvador Mallo appears to have grown out of love with filmmaking, but after an opportunity to present a restored version of one of his classic films arises, he chooses to meet his former star Alberto (Asier Exteandia), who he has not spoken to for 30 years. Alberto is now a heroin addict, an addiction that Salvador picks up as they resume a creative partnership, with the drugs fuelling Salvador’s own memories of the past; from growing up in a converted cave alongside his mother (Penelope Cruz) in the 60’s, to memories of his first love in the early 80’s, to the moments when he first found himself become enraptured by the power of cinema.
The film to which Pain and Glory (Dolor y Gloria) has been most extensively compared is Federico Fellini’s 8 1/2, the Italian director’s genre-bending, meta textual examination of a filmmaker crafting his most ambitious project to date. Both films are excellent, but the comparisons prove to be something of a dead end; Fellini was more preoccupied with the process of filmmaking itself, while Almodovar is interested in exploring the human factors that would inspire somebody to tell a story in the first place. We never see a single frame from any of Salvador’s films, just the rolling end credits at the screening of the restored film, and we only experience his work via a monologue performed by Alberto, who wants to use Salvador’s work to find the inspiration to act again. Pain and Glory (Dolor y Gloria) is, at its heart, about the innate emotional response we have to memories that lead some people to create, and the personal feelings others attach to those films that inspire them to create something of their own.
Pain and Glory (Dolor y Gloria) feels like an extension to the self-reflection of his overlooked 2009 effort Broken Embraces, which also followed the story of a film director, but one with more parallels to Almodovar in terms of career trajectory. That film even featured numerous re-stagings of sequences from Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, with the director surrogate wishing he could change them when looking back decades later. Pain and Glory (Dolor y Gloria) has nothing so brazenly parallel to the director’s own career, and if anything acts counter to that earlier work; instead of wishing he could change his older films, he starts to appreciate the quirks he previously dismissed when looking upon them for the first time in years. If Broken Embraces suggested a discomfort with his own filmography, then Pain and Glory (Dolor y Gloria) is the director falling in love with it again, using his work of old to find the inspiration to create something anew.
The personal tales from Salvador’s history, such as his ill-fated relationship with a bisexual man for whom he was the only male lover, are all moving, Almodovar incorporating those stories in a way that shows how they’ve been adapted into Salvador’s work, and the subtle ways in which the true tales differentiate from the stories they inspired. Most films about filmmaking are of no interest to the casual audience, but Pain and Glory (Dolor y Gloria) is remarkable in how it articulates the inner mind of a creative in a way anybody can respond to. I can’t think of another living director whose examination of the creative process could be so emotionally involving.