Sooner or later, the critic Clive James once noted, every artist feels the need to give us something of themselves. Pedro Almodovar’s latest, Pain and Glory, might as well be titled All About Myself; the subject is Salvador Mallo, an aging Spanish film director (Antonio Banderas) who has various health worries, and is wrestling with the creative process; he’s unwilling to work, and seeks escape through smoking heroin with an actor he’d previously fallen out with.
While under the chemical cosh, Mallo falls into a reverie about his early life, recognising what a gifted individual he was, recounting his first attraction to men, and fondly remembering how much his mother (Penelope Cruz) did for him when they were reduced by poverty to living in a cave with whitewashed walls.
It’s hardly a surprise that Almodovar should lapse into such navel-gazing and ‘I remember mama’ sentiment, but it’s hardly cause for celebration; the creativity that drove Volver, Live Flesh or The Skin I Live In is absent here, and there’s a lot of self-pity. Of course, Almodovar has a few games to play ‘You would never let me make a film about you’ Mallo tells his mother, yet the audience already know that motherhood is as much a staple of the director’s work as colourful kitchens and eye-popping decor.
Still, Cruz is always something to behold under the great man’s direction, and Banderas is excellent, wincing with pain as he surveys a life suddenly emptying of character and good times. Pain and Glory is one of these ‘artistic summation; the wonder of me’ films so beloved by Fellini and Cocteau; essential for the director’s fans, but perhaps a little dry and self-absorbed for the general public.