Pedro Almodóvar has often used something as obvious as the character of a film director to speak of his relation with movies, and you can always trace elements of himself in these characters. Whether it was, among others, Eusebio Poncela frustrated that, according to the Law of Desire, the sexual impulse is not something you can direct in others or in yourself in the same way you direct actors in movies, or Lluis Homar being so ravaged by illness and the Broken Embraces of the past that he can’t bring himself to make movies again. And yet, despite those obvious self-references, there was always in those works some other outlandish plot of mystery or death putting the focus elsewhere, making the autobiographical elements relative, concealed and diffuse, almost a footnote that illuminated some aspects of the story but that hardly got the proper focus and development. All those characters, however, and no matter how concealed and diffuse, spoke of Almodóvar’s need to explain himself, of a certain longing to explore what it is about the job of making movies that obsesses him so much, and what it is about his own life that forces him to represent it in endless forms and variations in his films.
With Pain and Glory it would seem as if he had finally realized that he could not keep handling the topic as side commentaries on other stories or through veiled allusions, and that he needed to tear down the veil and speak frankly and sincerely about it all. It is as if a painter who had been including, as a meta-referential game, more or less prominent self-portraits in paintings that had other subjects, had now decided to make just that, a self-portrait; which, read that way, might sound like an act of egotism, but is somewhat the opposite when you look at the result and see how mercilessly sincere the operation is. The point is not so much putting himself front-and-center for the pleasure of it, but on the contrary ceasing the referential game because it led to only partial truths that might be glamourizing and hiding the perhaps uglier whole. Almodóvar himself has used the word ‘autofiction’ to talk about his last film, although he (rightfully) denies it can be entirely classified as such, since he doesn’t place Pedro Almodóvar as the character in fictional situations, but instead a fictional character. But the points of contact with his own life are so many and so open (even the name of the protagonist, Salvador Mallo, has all the letters of the word ‘Almodóvar’) that there simply is no denying that this is an exploration of the self, even if it is through fictions that jump from springboards taken from his own life.
The operation has precedents so illustrious in film history that it gives one pause to name them, so as not to put an excessive burden on this new film of being compared to them. But it’s time to say it openly: Pain and Glory can compare to them, it is as good as them and, like those films for their directors, it is one of the absolute artistic peaks of Pedro Almodóvar. Yes, this is to Almodóvar’s oeuvre and life what 8 ½ or Amarcord could be to Fellini’s, or what Fanny and Alexander could be to Bergman’s: works of barely disguised fiction that cover events so similar to those in the lives of those directors that they are understood by everyone almost as memoirs. In fact, 8 ½ will probably be the title on most people’s lips when it comes to comparisons, since both that film and this one tell the story of a film director who, in the midst of a creative crisis, struggles with the question of what to do next, and why. Though I’d dare to say that, the tone being here so far from Fellini’s brainy and nearly cynical satire, we’re probably closer to Amarcord, considering the warmth and nostalgia of the proceedings. While, as in 8 ½, Almodóvar fortunately doesn’t indulge in self-aggrandization or self-pity and is brutally critical of himself, the point isn’t just the self-critique, but to express the aching, almost unbearable longing for what time took away, and for what he himself let go and for whose loss only he is to blame.
In order to reach the level of sincerity he reaches there, he has gone further onto the route of simplicity and austerity he had been hinting at since 2009 but that he fully embraced with his previous film, Julieta. The world has always marveled at the many and very creative ways in which Almodóvar used to tell stories or express his worlds, often with very flashy editing or narrative techniques. There is perhaps a risk that some critics may accuse this movie of being too straightforward, simple or earnest, like what happened with Volver when some in 2006 misguidedly called it ‘minor’ simply because it reached such a level of transparency, through depuration, that some mistook it for lack of effort. But let’s please not be mistaken this time: when an artist distils his talent so much that you don’t perceive the artifice it’s not precisely for a lack of effort, but rather the opposite: there has been so much effort that it now looks easy and simple. Or in other words: remember the silent short to explain a plot point in Talk to Her? Here a small stage play within the film also explains a plot point, but it is so organically and naturally imbricated in the fabric of the rest of the film that you don’t immediately realize what a sophisticated way it is to explain in one scene lots of things about three different characters, and about so many subjects such as love, drugs, art, film, fiction, reality and the different kinds of catharsis all those things can produce. There is no space in a mere review to analyze all the many mirrors and ironies subtly peppered through the story that reflect on both the dark and the luminous in all those subjects, but suffice it to say this is as dense and complex as the master has spoiled us into expecting from his works.
It is revealing, for instance, how some of the best scenes (and they are among the most moving scenes you are likely to watch this year, and probably in many years) are just one-on-one conversations, filmed either in master shots (as wonderfully composed as always) or in simple shot-reverse-shot patterns. The auteur’s writing is so good here that he is confident he needs nothing more than a good actor and a well-calibrated cut to a close-up to achieve the desired effect. At other times though, the magic does come from his peerless sense of aesthetics that mix the popular with the sublime, as in an opening scene that can put a lump in your throat just because of how beautiful it is, and yet it is also a beauty of great simplicity (although it must be said that, in terms of strict production values, this might be the most beautifully photographed, edited and scored Almodóvar film ever, even when in the modern-day scenes everything is more sober than in other films).
The result is a film that only feels like a simple, straightforward and earnest self-portrait because the director has depurated every element to its essence with the confidence of a true, veteran master, and through that he has made it one of his most deeply moving works (even if it is quietly so, since there may not be tragedies as tear-jerking as in, say, All About My Mother). But make no mistake: under that simpler surface, we have one sophisticated concoction that is emotionally exuberant, intellectually rigorous, and thematically as layered and rich as the best in his oeuvre, or more. Truly a masterpiece that feels both like a necessary aside he had to make to finally face certain things, and like the summation and meditation on everything else he had done before.