Movie Review: With Almodovar, It’s Always about his Mother, even in “Pain & Glory”

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Artists, the old saying goes, “pound the same nail over and over again.”

For the Spanish filmmaker Pedro Almodóvar, that nail often has fingernail polish on it.

“Pain & Glory,” his 22nd feature film, finds the 70 year-old legend in a reflective mood, an old man played by a handsome alter ego (Antonio Banderas) musing over his bad back, his migraines, his aching joints and his seized esophagus, a veritable recluse who no longer creates, but is ready to reconsider his past work in a new light.

His fragile health and a newly restored version of his great success, “Sabor (Taste)” has Salvador Mallo ready to forgive the film’s star, Alberto (Asier Etxeandia), whom he feuded with long ago. An actress Salvador used in his films (Cecilia Roth of “All About My Mother”) puts him in touch with Alberto, a less employed actor holed up in the picturesque tourist town of El Escorial.

They reconnect, forgive and forget. And it turns out, the issue the two had way back when offers some relief to Salvador now. Alberto loves his heroin, and has managed it for decades. Salvador finds pain relief with him as they “chase the dragon.”

And in flashbacks, some of them drug-induced, there she is, the woman (played by Penélope Cruz) who “made me who I am,” the mother whose influence drove the alter-ego filmmaker’s life and work just as it did the real director here, the one who gave us “All About My Mother” and “Pepi, Luci, Bom and Other Girls Like Mom,” who all but invented Spanish queer cinema in the process.

There’s an almost Fellini-esque magic to some of these childhood memories of a mama’s boy whose life in the arts began in the Catholic Church — a boy soprano soloist in the school choir, picking up his voice from his mother, who’d sing with the other women as they did their laundry in the river.

She was underwhelmed by the life they led, moved to Paterna by his laborer dad, living in one of the town’s famous cave houses. Jacinta (Cruz) lamented the rough-hewn walls, the dirt floor, the window skylight that let the rain in. Her mother lectured her, “Yiou live in catacombs, like the ancient Christians!”

And little Salvador loves this adventurous lifestyle, exchanging his book learning for writing lessons he gives a local teen (César Vicente), who whitewashes their walls and inadvertantly lets little Salvador realize that maybe he likes boys instead of girls.

In the present day, Salvador has nothing but the past. “I cannot film in this condition. Without filming,” he says (in Spanish, with English subtitles), my life is meaningless.”

But he has this autobiographical script that Alberto reads, one that could be staged as a one-man show. Let me “play you,” the actor begs, between sessions of “chasing the dragon.” Will this pull our hero out of his funk?

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There’s little emotion to all of this, and aside from a brief moment that flirts with “joyous,” even the flashbacks lack the brio and abandon characteristic of Almodóvar’s signature films.

It’s as if Banderas is taking Salvador’s own advice to Alberto-the-actor too literally. “The better actor is not the one who cries. It is the one who fights to hold back the tears.”

We aren’t given much to cling to here. Even the infirmities of old age are only portrayed as a stiff slowing down, and the depression that comes with that.

The locations — especially Paterna — can be striking. But generic doctor’s offices and apartments weigh the film down visually.

As the filmmaker, on screen and behind the camera, reflects on “the cinema of my childhood,” we hope for something more picaresque, a hint of “The 400 Blows” or “Cinema Paradiso.” Something more colorful and childish. “Fellini-esque.”

Almodóvar can’t be bothered with that. He never seems more like an old man than when he lets his film wander into old man complaints — that litany of physical ailments that we all obsess over as we age.

The sentimentality — for his mother, his formative childhood, an old lover — is what interests Almodóvar, here. And while it’s great that longtime collaborators Cruz and Banderas showed up to help him walk down memory lane, it’s not the most interesting cinematic journey he’s taken us on.

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MPAA Rating: R for drug use, some graphic nudity and language. |

Cast: Antonio Banderas, Asier Etxeandia, Celilia Roth, Leonardo Sbaraglia and Penélope Cruz

Credits: Written and directed by Pedro Almodóvar. A Sony Pictures Classics release.

Running time: 1:53

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