The words “Pedro Almodóvar” and “semi-autobiographical” are used together often, particularly when mentioning his strongest and most popular works — Bad Education, Volver, and the Oscar-winning All About My Mother amongst them.
So it’s notable that the Spanish filmmaker’s latest, Pain & Glory, is said to be his most autobiographical film. Almodóvar returns to the rich well he drew from for Volver and Bad Education, with settings and themes and moments that will remind fans of those films. But in Pain & Glory, he examines the present as much as the past, casting Antonio Banderas as Salvador Mallo, a cherished gay Spanish filmmaker whose body is breaking down.
The real life Almodóvar has showed no signs of slowing down, regularly trotting out new features every two or three years for decades now. But his proxy Salvador, who resembles his creator in other ways, has succumbed to a bad back and searing migraines, leaving the titular glory behind him while he wallows in the also titular pain.Mallo is a voracious reader and still writes occasionally, but he refuses to step behind the camera again — or let any unproduced stories see the light of day. When one of his most beloved films is revived for a special screening, Salvador makes nice with Alberto (Asier Etxeandia), the troubled star of the film, following years of bitter silence over a disagreement on his performance. (Alberto’s habitual heroin use didn’t help.)
A friendship forms, largely because Salvador doesn’t have a whole lot else to do. But Alberto sees the reunion as his chance to breathe new life into his dwindling career, eventually persuading Salvador to option one of his stories for a small stage production (on the condition that no one knows it’s a Salvador Mallo joint). Eventually, Alberto’s play draws the attention of Federico (Leonardo Sbaraglia), Salvador’s former flame, and the model for a key character in the show.
Like many Almodóvar films, Pain & Glory offers layers of storytelling — personal essays, theatrical productions, and fictional films that feed into Almodóvar’s larger narrative. What’s distinct in Pain & Glory is the somberness weighing down the filmmaker’s normally jubilant tone. Pain & Glory still has the vivid color and playful energy present in his other works, as well as a lot of recurring actors, but here, for a change, that all provides a contrast to our protagonist, who is so drained of passion and verve.Salvador Mallo is a bit of a sad sack, casting Antonio Banderas brilliantly against type. It’s almost shocking to see the charismatic Banderas so physically weary and broken down. But Mallo’s dry, bleak sense of humor injects a sense of Almodóvarian fun into even the darkest scenes. Pain & Glory is still plenty vibrant, with a couple moments of laugh-out-loud hilarity, and as gorgeous to behold as any Almodóvar movie. But what sticks this time are the quieter moments: Salvador’s interactions with his no-nonsense mother (Julieta Serrano) shortly before her death in old age; the beautifully understated relationship with his loyal best friend (and probably only friend), Mercedes (Nora Navas); and the film’s powerhouse scene, Salvador’s poignant reunion with former beau Federico decades after they parted ways. It’s a heartbreaker of a moment, guaranteed to resonate with anyone who’s ever lost touch with someone they care deeply about, only to reconvene and marvel at how much and how little has changed.
Pain & Glory revisits Salvador’s childhood, a younger version of his mother played by Almodóvar regular Penelope Cruz. Though these scenes recall elements of the far darker Bad Education, they’re presented as a mere slice of life, not your typical creative genius origin story. Aside from Pain & Glory‘s overall fixation on the past, you might wonder why these seemingly random, rather mundane moments are included here — but they build toward something incredible. Central to these flashbacks is Eduardo (César Vicente), an older neighbor boy that Salvador teaches to write and read. Though Eduardo is illiterate, he is beautifully expressive through art. Almodóvar fans may expect the relationship to grow more fraught or lurid, but that’s another place where Pain & Glory deviates from the filmmaker’s previous work. The way Almodóvar ties this all together is one of several subtle gut punches that land as Pain & Glory draws toward its masterful conclusion.
Pain & Glory fixates on a fictional artist’s past, but it could only be made with the real artist’s passion surrounding the edges of every frame. Almodóvar’s films tend to borrow from other filmmakers as well as his own life, but for all that Pain & Glory fits in with the rest of his canon, its quiet, lived-in wisdom also sets it apart. Pain & Glory feels so true, it hurts. In it, one of our modern era’s most dynamic filmmakers grapples with his life and legacy in a way that is intimate and revealing rather than self-celebratory or grandiose. In this one, it feels like he’s finally laying his whole heart out on the table.
Shockingly, Almodóvar hasn’t been nominated for an Oscar since he won Best Screenplay for 2002’s Talk To Her, despite a steady stream of strong films since. (His last brush with the Academy came with 2006’s Volver, when Penelope Cruz was nominated for Best Actress but the film itself was overlooked.) It’s impossible to imagine that this oversight won’t be corrected this year with a Best Foreign Language Film nomination for this film. Banderas has a shot at a well-deserved first-ever nomination, too.
Elsewhere in the foreign language film market, Phillip Lesage’s Genesis has an equally lived-in, ruminative quality to Pain & Glory. The Québécois filmmaker’s latest saw a minuscule release in the United States, flying far too under the radar to get the notice Pain & Glory will. (It was not chosen to represent Canada on this year’s shortlist.)
Genesis also has some autobiographical roots, primarily following Guillaume (Théodore Pellerin), a precocious boarding school student, and his older stepsister Charlotte (Noée Abita), and their ill-fated romances. A third character named Félix (Édouard Tremblay-Grenier) eventually becomes a focal point, too; his story is thematically relevant but not otherwise tied to Guillaume and Charlotte’s. Even Guillaume and Charlotte intersect only a couple of times during Genesis. There is little else linking them, leaving the audience to draw its own conclusions about why Lesage has included these disparate stories within one film.
Guillaume harbors a crush on his oblivious best friend Nicolas (Jules Roy Sicotte). He’s smart and popular with his peers, but that’s put in jeopardy when he makes his feelings known. An innocent act is interpreted the wrong way, with the school’s institutional homophobia exacerbating the situation. Guillaume doesn’t find his sexuality an overly important factor in how he relates with others, believing he can still be “one of the guys”… but finds the way they see him forever changed.Meanwhile, Charlotte’s boyfriend Maxime (Pier-Luc Funk) casually floats the idea of an open relationship, too obtuse to anticipate her stunned reaction. She’s not fond of the idea, but when she meets Theo (Maxime Dumontier) at a club, she takes the opportunity to spend the night with him. Theo is a few years older and an obvious heartbreaker. His interest in Charlotte is mostly sexual, but she views their interactions as the beginning of a potential relationship, which sets her up for disappointment… and worse.
Guillaume and Charlotte’s stories eventually reach twin low points, though the drama is understated for most of Genesis‘ running time. The third act shifts our attention toward Félix, a younger teenager who is away at summer camp, experiencing what we gather is his first requited crush with a fellow camper named Béatrice (Emilie Bierre). This section of Genesis is essentially a short film paired with the rest of the movie for thematic resonance; it’s an unusual, initially confusing choice on Lesage’s part, but it gives Genesis a texture it probably couldn’t have had otherwise.Much of Lesage’s film feels slight as it unfolds, especially in its simply rendered final act. But cumulatively, it has a quiet power. The use of two recurringsongs is haunting. Pellerin and Abita’s open-hearted performances ensure that their characters stay with us.
Guillaume is ostracized for speaking his true feelings, while casual sexism and thinly veiled machismo run rampant at his all-boys school. Ugly behavior is celebrated, with soul-baring strictly forbidden. It’s a harsh lesson, but one too often learned. Charlotte, the oldest of the three protagonists, experiences the worst fallout from her misbegotten love. Maxime takes her for granted, then Theo is even more callous, before a third male character commits an act of violence against her. Genesis suggests, perhaps, that each heartache leads the broken-hearted down an ever-darkening path. Charlotte and Guillaume both follow their hearts, and are ultimately punished for their innocence. Love has painful moments in store for all of us, but by ending the film on Félix’s story, Lesage reminds us what’s been driving Guillaume and Charlotte this whole time. There is an inherent, inescapable desire in all of us to seek a companion. Too often, it ends in pain. But it’s pure at heart. We all begin in innocence, but the world won’t let us stay that way.