Every so often do we see a great auteur do their own riff on Federico Fellini’s “8 1/2”, the 1963 masterpiece movie that ultimately launched the meta, film within a film approach that would be riffed numerous times since. This new “8 1/2” approach is the latest Almodovar film titled “Pain and Glory, written and directed by Pedro Almodovar, the Spanish auteur that has had a career of soap-opera style melodramas that border back and forth between kitsch and complete melodrama. The 21st film by Pedro Almodovar feels like his most personal, yet sadly it feels endless as it gets boggled down by too much melodramatic detours, where Almodovar should have embarked on a more phantasmagorical approach as you would expect from a filmmaker that often executes great craftsmanship.
Almodovar films have always held a personal touch as well, and his new film, “Pain and Glory” has all the ground of work of being something deeply personal for Almodovar as he touches on themes of aging, illness, and ones urge of being creative and relevant again. The character on display is Salvador Mallo (Antonio Banderas), a gay film director, who has messy hair, a white beard, that also wears turtle necks, may as well call himself Almodovar. One of the few differences is Salvador (Banderas) is much thinner and far less prolific than Almodovar, who continues directing flawed, but quality films today such as the radiant “Volver”, the intoxicating “Julieta”, and the audacious “The Skin I Live In”. Sure Almodovar hasn’t quite made an exceptional film since “Bad Education”, or a masterpiece since”Talk to Her”, the compassionate masterwork that gained him his first Best Directing Oscar nomination, but “Pain and Glory” is certainly a minor Almodovar work.
Antonio Banderas is indeed adequate here as Salvadore, the aging director who is enduring his own pain and glory after having back surgery that has left him with severe back pain. Banderas was awarded the Best Actor award at this years Cannes Film Festival for his role as Salvadore Mallo, who hasn’t directed a film in years, who finds himself being relevant again once his older film, Sabor is re-released and restored 32 years later at Madrid’s Spanish Cinematheque. Almodovar’s self-portrait is essential, since 32 years ago since Almodovar released “Law of Desire”, and ironically Almodovar presented the film at the Spanish Cinematheque just a few years ago, which also co-stars Banderas.
What is frustrating about “Pain and Glory” is never truly captures the artistry or resonance of Aldmovar’s previous films. Sure we get some self-references and homages to his earlier work. Penelope Cruz certainly reprises her mother role of “Volver” with a mix of the protagonist of “Julieta”, yet the scope or formally daring style in never captured, or found in this film. It is rather disappointing that Almodovar doesn’t rely on any dreamlike meditations as you would expect from him. Instead you are stuck with so much insufferable melodrama that keep the narrative in limbo. It would have made the film more impressive had Almodovar utilized more meta-artifices that were found in such films as “Law of Desire”, “Talk to Her” or “Bad Education”. The films melodramatic soap opera approach that Almodovar is best known for also feels stuffy, seek out the impressive melodrama in “All About My Mother” instead.
Banderas is indeed a complete embodiment of Almodovar, as being his doppelganger certainly rings true. and the two have collaborated before in many other films including “Law of Desire”, “Matador”, “Tie Me Up! Time Me Down!”, to recently “The Skin I Live In”. This time Banderas delivers a restraint performance, but what is missing is rawness and empathy. Its a performance that is gaining huge Oscar buzz at the moment, though a few overlooked performances like Matthew McCaughney’s hilariously stylized, yet affecting performance in Harmony Korine’s “The Beach Bum” deserves greater attention.