Late in Pedro Almodóvar's wonderful new drama, Pain and Glory, there comes a tough and tender flashback in which a filmmaker hears from his elderly mother (Julieta Serrano) that the neighbors don't like being portrayed in his movies. "I don't like auto-fiction," she adds with a note of acid reproof we rarely hear from the devoted maters, blood and surrogate, who people Almodóvar's movies.
Forgive the director, on- and off-screen, his evasive grin. Every Almodóvar film fairly drips with auto-fiction, mostly in disguise and sometimes in drag. In Pain and Glory, which completes Law of Desire (1987), which launched Banderas' career, and Bad Education (2004) in a trilogy centering on filmmakers navigating passion and loss, Almodóvar recreates his own history from his childhood in rural Spain in the sixties through his first real love affair amid the sexual freedom of post-Franco Spain. The film is an elegiac fiction from the viewpoint of a director in early old age, but it cuts so close to the bone of Almodóvar's own aging that he used furnishings and clothing from his own Madrid apartment, transformed into a place of primary-colored artistic delights that its owner is too bummed to enjoy.
Played by Antonio Banderas in hedgehog hair only slightly less upstanding than Almodóvar's own wild and woolly 'do, filmmaker Salvador Mallo has fallen into a dreadful funk just as a restored 30-year-old film of his goes into re-release. Salva doesn't care. He's obsessed with the creeping aches and pains of bodily decline, as well as more intense spinal pain that may signal more serious illness and prevents him from working. This being Almodóvar, the ailments also spark some imaginative visual high-jinks with x-rays and such.
Mooning about the house to the disapproval of the usual phalanx of sturdy women who prop him up, Salva retreats into memories of his youth and, inevitably, regret at paths not taken and his apparent failure to grow into the son he believes his mother wanted. And really, who could fail to try and please Penelope Cruz, doing an effortless Anna Magnani as Salva's young mother, a peasant so resourceful that she can create a graceful home out of a cave?
Luckily, Salva is a radically unreliable narrator of the pickle he's in and in his conviction that he will make no more films. There is, in fact, a script gestating in his head, however addled with medication and a nascent, if incompetent, heroin habit. It's a monologue about the several kinds of addiction that have shaped its writer's life — to substances, to sex and loves both maternal and romantic, to filmmaking itself. He can't see it yet, but Salva's deep dive into the past, along with some re-encounters with key figures he's lost touch with — an early crush, his first great love, an estranged actor from his early film — also build a history, at once fictional and true, of how his experience, not formal education, have shaped his distinctive cinema.
Performing at his mature finest, Banderas moves up and down the emotional register from mournful to puckish to regretful to freshly hopeful with a restraint that dials down Almodóvar's breathy melodrama almost to straight realism. The bright reds and blues that decorate his other movies are muted in the apartment where Salvo holes up in self-isolation, brightening only when women come in to rescue or when he ventures out into the sharp light and dramatic dark of Madrid, whose beauty and squalor have fed his imagination for three decades.
Always, though, there is Almodóvar's gift for cinematic abandon, for the sheer joy of the vibrant, just-because image: Women singing as they spread sheets on bushes to dry; an older actor (Asier Etxeandia) growing young before our eyes as he undulates his hips in a sexy dance as he revs up to deliver the monologue a demoralized Salva refuses to perform himself. And yes, there are sex and drugs and flashes of coarse humor, but you could take your grandmother to see Pain and Glory, and for that matter almost any Almodóvar movie, brimming over as they do with populist warmth and mother-love.
Late in Pain and Glory, Salva gets an offer that he'd almost certainly have leapt to accept as a younger man. Now he refuses, gently, with affection — and with good reason, for his recollections and re-entry to the world beyond his apartment have turned Salva, not into a man reborn exactly, but a man returning to himself on the understanding that pain and glory come and go, but his work is far from done.