The Madrid-based auteur Pedro Almodóvar is no stranger to the integration of auto-fictitious narratives within his films, but, in recent years, he has strayed away from the international acclaim of his earlier career. However, his latest film, Dolor y gloria (Pain and Glory), which premiered at the 2019 Cannes Film Festival and won Best Actor for Antonio Banderas, brilliantly returns Almodóvar to his previous form. While the film does cover similar aspects of Almodóvar’s life that he has previously covered in his work such as his relationship with his mother as seen in Todo sobre mi madre (All About My Mother) and his past homosexual relationships as seen in La mala educación (Bad Education), the whimsical, free-flowing nature of the narrative allows for the audience to be fully enveloped in the aging filmmaker’s past in an entirely new and engaging manner.
The narrative casually shifts between the past and present of ailing film director, Salvador Mallo played by Banderas, as he reflects on his childhood in a poor Spanish village, reconnecting with an old friend, Alberto Crespo played by Asier Etxeandia, and crossing paths with his old lover, Federico played by Leonardo Sbaraglia. While Almodóvar’s approach of integrating these elements into his film is nothing new, his age has clearly changed the outlook of his life and by extension his work. And, while reflective work by filmmakers of Almodóvar’s age is certainly a common practice that borders both cliché self-indulgence or uninspired attempts to reclaim previous acclaim, the narrative of his film cautiously keeps its distance from either and is fully successful as a pure work of fiction. The physical, psychological, and emotional ailments of Mallo are felt on each respective level by the audience, and Almodóvar’s personal elements serve merely as sub-context for the fictional plot, rather than the centerfold of the film.
Almodóvar’s simplistic approach to the film and his nearly 30-year-long collaboration with Banderas allow the film to become just as much about Banderas as it is about Almodóvar. Banderas’ career path is similar to Almodóvar’s, and their collaborative success propelled both of their careers. Yet, in the time “past their prime” they each continue to prove their versatility as artists. Banderas’ dedication to his role proves vital to the success of the film, and if not for his brilliant acting, the balance of the film between the fictional and indulgence would have become unsteady. As Mallo struggles with the addictions caused by a combination of a long career in filmmaking and numerous physical afflictions, Banderas blurs the line between himself and his role, as he slips past the point acting and into existing.
While the majority of the success is placed on Banderas’ shoulders, this is not to take away from the exceptional filmmaking by Almodóvar. The overt references to similar films such as Federico Fellini’s 8 1/2 do come off heavy-handed at times, but Almodóvar finds his own work within the self-reflective genre, without having to rely too heavily on prior internationally famous works within the genre. As the narrative moves freely between the past and present, similarly to the blurring of reality and fantasy during a heroin high, Almodóvar’s indulgence melts away as even audiences not at the age of either Banderas or Almodóvar fully connect with the film’s message of reconciliation in the face of past intense trauma.
Almodóvar clearly has a passion for the art medium of film, so it is unlikely that he will stop making films, but his approach to the film is one of a filmmaker in the final years of his career. As the title of the film suggests, Almodóvar’s exploration of the relationship between an artist’s success and the sacrifices one must make to achieve this success is the central theme, and the expertly balanced blend of his work, Banderas’ work, and the fictitious plot certainly make this one of the most poignant works of his career.