The collaboration between actor and force of nature Antonio Banderas and auteur and force of nature Pedro Almodovar goes way back to 1987 with Law of Desire. His relationship with actress Penelope Cruz goes back almost as long. I first noticed Almodovar with 1988’s Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, which also stars Banderas. The movie made him a superstar was Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!, which was extremely influential as a sexual touchstone of its time – and certainly hit my life pretty hard. No surprise at all that Banderas turned up in the Madonna doc as the object of her desire in Truth or Dare. Banderas was IT in the 1980s.
If you were alive in the 1980s as I was (GASP!) you will remember the culture quake that Almodovar created in our lives as women. No one back then made movies like that, wrote characters like that. Almodovar dug deep and allowed women to emerge as complex, interesting — strange and sexual creatures that mostly rule the world. This has been consistently true throughout his work and comes to a kind of beautiful completion with Pain and Glory, a memoir of the artist as a formidable young man at the hands of a strong and influential mother. No surprise there, right? We know a lot about this already from Almodovar’s wonderful All About My Mother and many other of his films that feature a strong female presence.
Pain and Glory is a gentle, thoughtful meditation and rumination on muses and mortality. But it is, more than anything else, a confrontation between a gay son growing up with a mother he loves but who doesn’t completely accept him as he is. That struggle, that pain must have driven this dazzlingly brilliant director throughout his career. In this film he speaks directly to that pain for, perhaps, cathartic release.
With his friend and confidant Alberto, Banderas as Salvador (an avatar for Almodovar, most certainly) smokes heroin and drifts into vivid reminiscence. We watch young Salvador and his mother (Penelope Cruz), beautiful, strong, confrontational, as they struggle to survive living in a cave of sorts with no running water or flushing toilets. But it all so beautiful. Like Fellini and Bergman and — not to be pretentious or anything — even Proust. The details of peeling potatoes, of bare feet on a clay floor, of bright colors against the blinding white light, and the first flush of lust when a young man appears and bathes himself in front of the young Salvador. He faints at the sight of this naked Adonis and so his whole life flashes before him. Yep, he’s gay.
Pain and Glory is such a joy to watch because you know from the first five minutes (as you do with the best of movies by the best directors) that you are in the capable hands of a master. Almodovar is a master. There is never a stumble here, not single a wasted scene. It’s lean and exacting in what it wants to say and it is full of glorious, delicious, unforgettable scenes throughout.
Antonio Banderas should be a formidable Best Actor contender in this film, and Almodovar should be a top contender for Original Screenplay and Director. I do not know if the race will go this way. 2019 is packed with brilliance. The most aggressive publicists and contenders are the ones that will punch through the noise. But let it be known that this movie is one of the best of the year without a doubt and if awards are supposed to be about that, then Pain and Glory will not be forgotten.