'Pain and Glory' Review: A Meditative Masterpiece

Antonio Banderas as Salvador Mallo in Pedro Almodóvar’s  Pain and Glory

Antonio Banderas as Salvador Mallo in Pedro Almodóvar’s Pain and Glory

Salvador Mallo (Antonio Banderas) is in a lot of pain. Debilitating, even. Early on in Pedro Almodóvar’s Pain and Glory, the middle-aged Mallo lists off his maladies: insomnia, chronic pharyngitis, otitis, reflux, ulcers, asthma, migraines, tinnitus, anxiety, depression. And those are just his physical ailments. Mallo is also struggling with psychological pain, emotional wounds that haven’t healed — a relationship lost to addiction, a mother whose love he could never win. 

All of this pain is ripped from Almodóvar’s own life. Pain and Glory is a work of autofiction, Almodóvar’s most personal film to date, in which the boundaries between truth and fiction are beautifully blurred. Mallo is an aging film director best known for his sexy, cult-favorite films. (Sound familiar?) The character is fashioned in Almodóvar’s image: he sports the director’s signature hair and beard, is costumed in the director’s own clothes, and lives in a replica of the director’s colorful apartment. But in recent years, Mallo, like Almodóvar, has slowed down, inhibited by his chronic pain, and is at a crossroads. Mallo has retired himself from filmmaking and struggles to figure out his next steps. “If you don’t write or film, what will you do?” an old friend asks him. Mallo replies, “Live, I guess.” But he still wonders — is a life without creating really a life at all? 

Pain and Glory follows a long lineage of meta, autobiographical filmmaking, evoking Federico Fellini’s 8 ½ and Bob Fosse’s All That Jazz. But this is not just a film about filmmaking: it’s a warm and tender meditation on memory, connection, and artistry. Less a vanity project than a diary entry, a self-portrait. Even Banderas, a long-time collaborator of Almodóvar’s, was surprised by the script’s candor. “There were things I never thought he was going to expose, not even to his friends,” Banderas told the New York Times. “Pedro is a very private person.”

But in Pain and Glory, Almodóvar opens himself up to us, pulling back the curtain to reveal the pain behind the glory. “This [film] is the most intimate representation of me,” Almodóvar told the Wall Street Journal, “an extension of myself.” The film follows Mallo in the past and present, dropping in on his childhood through flashbacks, which are often drug-induced. Growing up, Mallo and his family were poor. He was anchored, always, by reading, writing, music, and films. “I love The Beatles and the cinema,” he tells his choir teacher as a boy. His mother (Penelope Cruz) struggles to make ends meet and takes great pains to lay the foundation for a better life for young Salvador. 

Flash forward to today, and Mallo is successful but unmoored. His pain has taken over his life, and heroin has become one of his only methods to combat it. (Fortunately, this detail didn’t originate in real life: Almodóvar swears he’s never used the drug.) He continues to mourn his lost love and late mother, though he keeps that grief hidden in documents on his computer. This is and isn’t a story of addiction — if Mallo is addicted to anything, it’s art, and it’s his withdrawal from creating that compounds his pain. 

And yet, Pain and Glory isn’t melancholy. It’s about suffering, yes, but there is also a stubborn hope to it, a belief in that reconciliation and recovery are distinctly possible for anyone. It’s also a testament to the life-saving power of art, but not in any grand, declarative sense — the film is too poignant and thoughtful for that. The film sees art as a source of purpose, a rehabilitating force, but also as something deeply personal and individual. 

Above all, Pain and Glory is beautiful. Every shot is beautiful, every actor is beautiful, every song is beautiful. Each frame is packed with bold colors and patterns, in signature Almodóvar style, and flashbacks are vibrant and lushly drawn. Women wash lily white sheets by the river, singing flamenco as they do. Young Salvador eats pan con chocolate and reads magazines that tell of Hollywood stars. Inside their cave dwelling, Salvador reads, bathed in light, as a young man sketches him. Many of these flashbacks are tonally reminiscent of Giuseppe Tornatore’s Cinema Paradiso — that is, deeply intimate and awash with nostalgia. It’s all so gorgeous, I want to wrap myself in each frame.

At 70 years old, Pedro Almodóvar has grown and matured considerably over the past several decades. He’s tamed his wilder sensibilities without dulling his creativity, and he’s leaning into all his best instincts. And in Pain and Glory, he’s discovering a new, more personal dimension to his filmmaking. This is a story of aging, of growing, of changing, but ultimately, it is a story about creating — creating connections, creating art, creating self. On Almodóvar’s part, it’s one of his most stunning and moving creations yet — perhaps, his masterpiece.

Sophia Stewart