'Pain And Glory' Review: Pedro Almodovar's Most Autobiographical Film Is A Tender, Beautiful Magic Trick [TIFF 2019]

Filmmakers – especially those who auteurs who shape the story of their respective films – often draw on personal experiences. It's a time-honored tradition, with Federico Fellini's 8 ½ being perhaps the most famous, respectable example. Pedro Almodovar's Pain and Glory is yet another prime instance, and there are times when watching the film that one wonders if it's all too personal – turning the audience into true voyeurs, peering into the furthest recesses of another person's heart and soul. In many ways, this is Almodovar's most "normal" movie, but it's also one of his best, a lovely, tender work of art that finds beauty in personal pain.

In telling the (somewhat fictionalized) story of his life, Almodovar has turned to one of his frequent collaborators: Antonio Banderas. Banderas, who turns in some of the best work of his career here, plays aging filmmaker Salvador Mallo, a limping, perpetually somber man who is in a constant state of pain from a back injury. He remains acclaimed and respected, but his sadness is palpable as he sulks about his world.

One of Mallo's earlier films has been recently restored, and a local theater is set to screen it. The theater would like Mallo to come take part in a Q&A with the film's star, Alberto Crespo (Asier Etxeandia). But Salvador and Crespo haven't spoken in more than three decades, primarily due to Salvador's resentment of his former leading man. As Mallo puts it, he loathed the way Crespo played the lead character in the film at the time. However, he admits that now, years later, the performance has improved.

"The performance didn't change," one of his former actresses tells him. "You did."

Attempting to let bygones be bygones, Salvador approaches Crespo about the Q&A, and while the actor is bitter and resentful at first, he eventually consents. But not before he introduces Salvador to the wonderful world of freebasing heroin. This set-up may make one thing Paina and Glory is about to descend into a tale of addiction, as Salvador gets hooked on heroin and makes his life considerably worse. But that's not the case. Yes, Mallo continues to chase the dragon throughout the narrative – but this might be the most pleasant, lighthearted examination of heroin use ever captured on film.

As Pain and Glory unfolds, Salvador reflects on his past, including his childhood with his mother, played by a fiery Penelope Cruz. There's also reflection on his own sexuality, including his childhood discovery of his homosexuality, spurned by seeing the nude body of a male neighbor. Almodovar cuts back and forth between past and present, with Salvador's youth informing on his adulthood. He drifts about, objects and sounds trigging a total recall in his brain. His former lover Federico (Leonardo Sbaraglia) resurfaces, and the two men share a quiet, lovely evening together.

None of these situations amount to what one might consider a plot, or even a storyline. Instead, Almodovar takes a more episodic approach, jumping in and out of specific moments in Salvador's life. It's a film built on reflection and introspection. And the result is intoxicating. Cinematographer José Luis Alcaine brings overwhelming brightness to nearly every scene, from the sun-burnt bricks of Salvador's cave-like childhood home, to the eye-popping colors present in the sprawling house the adult Salvador now resides in. All of which is accented by Paola Torres's prepossessing costume designs – dig that bright green leather jacket Salvador dons during a climactic scene.

All of these elements blend together to conjure up an experience that feels lived-in and inviting; lush, gorgeous, and altogether enchanting. Almodovar pulls this all together in one closing scene that plays out not just like a magic trick, but rather a magic trick that's being explained to us by a master magician. "You were stunned and awed by this," Almodovar is saying, "now let me show you how I did it."

The film didn't change. We did.

/Film Rating: 9 out of 10