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'Pain and Glory': Pedro Almodóvar's Masterpiece of Memory

Antonio Banderas stars as a director looking back on life with the poignant wisdom of age

Rating: R

Run time: 1 hour 52 minutes

Stars: Antonio Banderas, Penélope Cruz, Asier Etxeandia, Julieta Serrano

Director: Pedro Almodóvar

En español | Spain's most beloved director, Pedro Almodóvar, 70, began as the most colorful enfant terrible you ever saw, making a splash with brash movies like 1988's Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown and launching a new star named Antonio Banderas, now 59. His movies are as eye-poppingly colorful as ever — each scene is like a stunning painting — but his latest masterpiece is also his most shadowy, melancholy, personal and grownup work of art. It won its star, Banderas, the best actor award at the Cannes Film Festival for playing the film's Almodóvar-like hero, Salvador. He's an aging enfant who feels just terrible: gut pains, migraines, anxiety, spinal agony, tinnitus. He should be battling his ailments and disrupting aging, being defiantly creative, living life to the full, but he's even lost the will to make movies.

Then he reunites by chance with Alberto (the lively Asier Etxeandia), an actor he made famous in a film three decades before. They've been estranged for years (as Almodóvar and Banderas were), but when they're asked to introduce their old hit at a cinematheque in a restored version, their old feud dissolves and they re-bond. Unfortunately, Alberto is a functional heroin dabbler, and Salvador starts to use it to ease his aches, physical and spiritual.

You'd think this would lead to a cliched tale of disaster and/or redemption, but the drug turns out to be just another affliction that gnaws at the director, and he's able to overcome it with no big drama. The real drama is Salvador's reluctant, noble attempt to come to terms with the people in his past. In Salvador's home (filled with Almodóvar's actual possessions), the actor Alberto finds an essay the director wrote about the love of his life, Federico (Leonardo Sbaraglia), whom Salvador long ago dumped because Federico was a druggie, too, and back then Salvador wasn't. Alberto stages the piece, which leads to a reunion between the director and his lost love.

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That's a moving scene of reconciliation, but Salvador saves the bulk of his drama for his mama. The event that sparked Salvador's misery was the recent death of his mother — and you should know that all Almodóvar films are about his unresolved mother issues. Salvador keeps flashing back to his childhood, when his adored but sometimes impossible mom (played by Penélope Cruz, 45) heroically made a home for them in an underground cave. It was open to the rain, but it was the best place they could afford, and she managed to recognize her son's genius and help launch him to greatness.

Yet being a staunch Catholic, she could scarcely approve of his gay identity, loss of faith and excessive love of the Beatles. In scenes even more moving than the Cruz flashbacks, Salvador apologizes to his aged mother in her last days (played by Julieta Serrano, 86, who also played Banderas’ mom in Women on the Verge). He simply wasn't the sort of son she had dreamed of, and besides, he peeved the family by putting bits of their real life in his famous films, like this one. “I've failed you simply by being as I am,” he says. But that failure was his success, and his glory grew out of his pain.

Like Alfonso Cuarón's 2018 hit Roma, Pain and Glory is an inspired late-in-life tribute to the director's loved ones and formative experiences, a nostalgic summing up and a bold aesthetic breakthrough that brings the past to vibrant life. Roma won three Oscars. Pain and Glory may well win the foreign film Oscar and the best actor Oscar for Banderas. In several senses, it's the film of a lifetime.

AARP critic Tim Appelo was Amazon’s entertainment editor and a critic for The Nation, Hollywood Reporter, EW, People, MTV, LA Weekly, New York Times, and Los Angeles Times.