He’s brought us melodrama and kitsch, bold colours and off-beat characters, irreverent humour and taboo-busting storylines. He gave us pre-Hollywood Antonio Banderas and Penélope Cruz, a window into Spanish art, politics and history like no other and nuanced female and LGBTQ+ characters long before they were a hot trend.
Now, with the release of his latest feature film comes much of the Pedro Almodóvar his devout followers have grown to know and love. Using a much more sombre, reflective lens through which to ruminate on desire, addiction, memory and creativity, Pain and Glory – or Dolor y Gloria – tells his most autobiographical story yet.
Twenty one feature films later, his Spanish-language cinema has earned the director worldwide acclaim and a plethora of accolades, not least two Oscars, Best Foreign Language Film for All About My Mother (1999) and Best Original Screenplay for Talk To Her (2002).
Pain and Glory follows an ageing film director, Salvador Mallo – played mesmerisingly by Banderas – who is plagued by physical and psychological afflictions that prevent him from doing what he loves: making movies.
Through a non-linear recollection of Salvador’s memories we visit three distinct eras of life in Spain: the 1960s under Francisco Franco, when his family strive to start a new life in Valencia and he experiences his first desire; the 1980s world of culture and drug abuse in Madrid, in which he finds and loses his first love; and the present day, when he must work to find reconciliation with his past in order to fill the void that prevents him from moving forward.
The striking opening sequence of Salvador submerged in a swimming pool – a real-life experience Almodóvar had when recovering from a back operation – became the genesis of the film, as was the childhood memory of the stream, as he watched his mother wash clothes with other women from their village, reimagined beautifully with Catalan flamenco-fusion star Rosalía singing “A Tu Vera”, by Andalusian folklore artist Lola Flores, acapella.
Like Salvador, Pedro went to seminary school and believes he got his real education through cinema, with the outdoor screenings he frequented as boy recalled evocatively by Salvador: “The cinema of my childhood smells of pee and jasmine and a summer’s breeze.”
Many other aspects are fictional: the cave depicted as their home in Valencia, the actor he fell out with on a past film and the conversations depicted with his dying mother. Plus, he says, he never took heroin.
Casting Cruz as Salvador’s mother, Jacinta, “was a very natural choice,” the Spanish auteur tells me, switching fluidly between English and his native Spanish. “It was like a continuation of the work we were doing in the past. Almost in every movie, she plays a mother, but this one is very different from the others.”
“In Volver, for example, she is a contemporary Spanish mother, whereas in this case she plays a mother of a poor family in the early Sixties. It was a very dark, post-war time and she carries the burden of humiliation on her shoulders, but with a spirit of survival. Penélope is the only actress I know who can stand wearing vintage clothes of that era, of poor people at that time, and still look absolutely fabulous. It’s hard for her not to look glamorous.”
At the film’s premiere, Cruz reflected on the director’s skill for representing female characters: “I think he really respects and admires women, because he was raised by a very strong group of women: his mother and sisters and neighbours. He talks about them constantly, how they shaped him. I met his mother, the character I play in the movie, and she was really special – one of a kind.”
Banderas gives gives a career-best performance as Salvador. His hair is grey and spiky while many of his costumes were taken from the director’s own wardrobe.
“This is a very distinct piece of work for him,” says Almodóvar. “His interpretation of the role is very much opposite to what made him famous: the bravura, the showmanship.” He says that it was difficult to call the actor and ask him, “the last thing I want you to be is Antonio Banderas”.
“It was almost like a process of renouncing what he’d done previously. This role is very much about his renewal as an actor.”
The film is unmistakable “Almodóvar” in its exacting aesthetic that embraces artifice over naturalism, each scene a standalone composition filled with the bright hues of the Technicolor films he grew up watching. “I began as an underground filmmaker and didn’t really know how to use a camera, so my first films I was really learning the language of cinema,” he says.
“I think I have turned less baroque. And what I’m most attracted to is a certain simplicity, there’s a new restraint to my work. I’m very conscious of that sobriety. And it also has to do with the story and the narrative of Pain and Glory. There’s an element of profundity, an element of sincerity. I wanted to avoid the shadows of rhetoric. It’s new for me and it’s a path I’m on.”
Like a fresh take on Federico Fellini’s 8½, Pain and Glory tackles the art of creation itself and reveals that in the process of translating real events to screen, reality will always be retold imperfectly, just as memories will change and mutate in the mind over time. It also demonstrates that remembering and retelling the past can be a way to understand the present, whether for Salvador, for Almodóvar himself or for today’s generation in Spain.
“Memory is clearly key,” the director explains. “The pain that Salvador experiences paralyses and isolates him, but also allows him to open up to these memories. Salvador thinks that he can’t film, and without filming he has no reason to live. So he takes up heroin as a way of alleviating and dealing with the pain.
“But he’s not addicted to the drug. His dependence is on telling stories through film. And when recalls his first desire, he realises that can save him.
“When he puts words to that, that’s his salvation and that gives him the passion to say something.”
‘Pain and Glory’ is in UK cinemas from 23 August