By Benjamin Akpan
The first film of Antonio Banderas I ever saw was 1998’s The Mask of Zorro. Banderas was good; Catherine Zeta-Jones was even better (because, if we’re being honest, we only cared for Catherine Zeta-Jones). Along with its 2005 sequel, Zorro happened to not only be the first, but only film I’ve seen featuring Banderas. This, of course, isn’t taking into consideration the Shrek movies, since — and we can all agree — the Puss-in-Boots role basically acted itself. This also means that I have yet seen the best of Pedro Almodóvar, the Spanish director who begot Banderas’ career in the first place, with the 1982 Spanish-language comedy Labyrinth of Passion.
So, excuse my surprise when — following the Cannes Film Festival in May — word about Pain and Glory (Almodóvar’s twenty-first effort) began to sprout. It’s been 22 years since the duo last worked together, but it was a worthwhile wait; Pain and Glory is a glaring testimony of a master at the top of his craft, featuring an actor at his most vulnerable, and a career-capping effort for both of them.
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A deeply personal reflection into the life of an ageing film director experiencing writer’s block, Pain and Glory carefully weaves together the past and present to produce an introspective look at one’s creative process. At its centre is Banderas as Salvador Mallo, a filmmaker nearing the end of his career, and afflicted by a series of illnesses, both physical and emotional. Salvador feels empty until a string of events causes him to cogitate over certain moments in his life that have helped shape his very being.
Alternating between the past and present reveals a tale of a dreamer who has lost all desire to dream, because to do so would require an acceptance of his memories as a boy growing up with his mother (played by the Almódovar staple Penélope Cruz). And as he slowly delves into his youth, we begin to get a complete, more rounded image of the man presented before us, within which the conflicts of pain and – you guessed it – glory reside. Throughout the various storylines, we’re given a glimpse into the heartaches that constantly plague him; the deep love for, and regret felt towards his mother; as well as the ingrained fear of coming to terms with his person.
It is all this and more that Banderas is left with to interpret, and he does so with acting that is both nuanced and somber. You just have to believe me when I say Mask of Zorro does no justice to his ability. While introducing the film at TIFF ‘19 (which marks the film’s North American debut), Almódovar described Banderas’ work as “delicate, emotional, and intense.” No three words have ever encapsulated a performance better. Nearly three years ago, Banderas suffered a heart attack, which – in his own words – was the best thing to ever happen to him. As a result, he brings to the role of Salvador a certain emotional depth that cannot be feigned.
Salvador is more often than not considerably a shell of himself, with his mind distant, and his pain exposed, yet the world around him is the polar opposite of the person he is. Designed with intense detail by Antxón Gómez, and expertly shot by José Luis Alcane, every colour is meticulously placed and utilized, bringing to life a world of warmth and safety that perfectly juxtaposes the gloom and dullness that plague Salvador’s life.
But it is Almódovar that ties it all together. His style is at its most naturalistic and controlled. Despite the perpetual jumps in time, Almódovar weaves them with an emotional coherence that is deeply affecting and satisfying. The one sequence in particular between Salvador and his long lost love Federico (an understated performance from Leonardo Sbaraglia that complements Banderas’ work with ease), is directed in a manner that is as tender as it is melancholic. Such dexterity can only come from a seasoned veteran, and Almódovar’s form is a culmination of experience accrued over his 39-year career.
Pedro Almódovar has made very clear that, though Pain and Glory is not autobiographical, it is an intimate, self-reflective piece, and the evidence is extremely clear. This is not a film he has made for the audience; it is a film he’s made for himself – a reminder of his need to carry on in his art, complete with a wicked sense of humour and a delicately wielded emotional punch. Sure, it may come off as contrived at times, but Almódovar has earned the right. After nearly four decades of cinematic sublimity, Pain and Glory comes as a crowning achievement and a paradoxically modest self-tribute to a man whose love for the art of filmmaking makes him feel alive.
Pain and Glory is scheduled to be released in theatres on October 4, 2019.
Editor’s note: This film was originally screened at the Toronto International Film Festival 19'