When it comes to a filmmaker like Pedro Almodóvar—a director who inserts bits and pieces of himself into practically everything he does—it can be hard to tell what's real, what's not and what might just be fantasy. In Pain & Glory, Almodóvar blurs the lines further, telling the story of a once-lauded writer/director named Salvador (Antonio Banderas) who, on the cusp of senior citizenship, starts to feel wistful and hopes to come to terms with the events of his life thus far.
Between chronic pain, depression and haunting memories of his past, Salvador has chosen to leave writing and filmmaking behind. This comes with a sense of meaninglessness, but when a small theater asks him to present his most famous work as part of a film festival, Salvador sets out to make peace with its lead Alberto (Asier Etxeandia), a man he hasn't spoken with since the film premiered three decades earlier. Alberto introduces Salvador to heroin which, for a time, calms his pain and anxieties. But when the pair collaborates once more on a one-man show based on Salvador's cinematic awakening as a youth, old friends come calling and he is faced with a dilemma he can no longer ignore.
Banderas is a revelation, a calming and dimensional if scattered presence and a man who's lived enough to know he wants to set right the missteps of his past. The performance is a masterclass in vulnerability and buried fears dredged up again, and it's easily one of his best. But the real magic of Pain & Glory is in its disparate timelines. Are Salvador's flashbacks really flashbacks, or are they a grand vision for something new? Call it a midlife crisis, call it a bout of crippling nostalgia—call it what you like, but Salvador's own salvation comes in the form of acceptance that a new chapter always comes if we let it.
One often wonders if one's best days are behind them, and while what we learn in Pain & Glory can't possibly quell those fears, it does provide resounding hope. Almodóvar proves his skills for the umpteenth time while coaxing one of the year's best performances out of Banderas. The lesson is fuzzy, but there for those who look. In a simple phrase? You ain't seen nothing yet.
+The small but clever twist; Banderas
-Borders on heavy handed now and then
Pain & Glory
Directed by Almodóvar
With Banderas and Etxeandia
Center for Contemporary Arts, R, 113 min.