At the heart of Pain and Glory is Salvador Mallo (Antonio Banderas), an aging director partially based on Almodóvar himself. Mallo, still coping with the loss of his mother, is also suffering from severe pain throughout his body. In the first act, the audience gets a visually playful summary of all the aches and pains, a list so long my muscles started to seize just thinking about it. Banderas, with an exceptional performance, exhibits this so clearly with the subtle stiffness in each step and the struggle to get in and out of taxis. Most interestingly, this pain is presented as the source of self-knowledge. Seen as a music prodigy at his school, Mallo was taken out of geography and biology classes in order to practice singing. He learned about geography as he traveled for his career and learned about his body through pain.
His most personal film to date, Almodóvar is still able to make Pain and Glory humorous and in his signature style despite the subject matter of aging and addiction. While Salvador’s glory days as a young filmmaker in Madrid reveal he is no stranger to drug use, he decides to start taking heroin to manage pain, a story unfortunately too common for many adults today. Impressively, Banderas showcases the subtle humiliation in this addiction. It is clear that heroin helps him to function with less pain, but you feel the second hand embarrassment when Salvador leaves to his room while his friend is on the phone, humorously returning with sunglasses on and his head down. The character is aware that he is using to manage his physical pain, but as he dips in and out of consciousness, his use becomes a device for flashbacks to his childhood in a village with his mother (Penelope Cruz).
However, this is not a story about addiction. Mallo’s drug use, and the use of those around him, is so purposefully non-tragic that it becomes more powerful than if Pain and Glory was about a user spiraling out of control. Instead, this is a story about a man who assumes his career is over and finds desire again. With the humour and empathy of a life spent making films, Almodóvar is able to give himself and those he loves the hope and redemption they deserve.