‘Pain and Glory’ features Antonio Banderas at his best

Once a director, always a director.

One of the misconceptions about directors is that they can actually turn off that light in their head that makes them want to arrange, dictate, and create. The preconceived notion that a switch can simply be flipped. It doesn’t work that way.

Just ask Salvador Mallo (Antonio Banderas), a once famous film director who may seem retired to the outside world, but the wheels in his head haven’t stopped turning. While the rest of his body has submitted to various illnesses and conditions, Salvador’s mind works at full speed, which serves his life of solitude well.

When his most famous film is remastered and screened at a film festival, Salvador starts reflecting back on his historical yet equally tragic career. He runs into old faces and places, reconnecting the dots in his mind while his body catches up. What starts out as a nostalgic glimpse turns into a full-blown journey for Salvador, and his decision-making skills weaken, bringing new activities and desires into his life. Some are for the better, but one thing in particular is not.

I won’t give away much more than the simple fact that everyone around Mallo keeps telling him to make another movie or create, and while he doesn’t refuse, there’s something holding him back. For some filmmakers, it’s not just work to them; it’s the transfusion of art and real life, and that can be dangerous when done at a half-wit speed.

“Pain & Glory” is Pedro Almodovar looking back at his own storied career, one full of personal choices, refusals, and decisions that defined who he is. If there was ever an example of a movie within a movie within real life, this is it. This is Almodovar telling you why he did what he did and how it was done. He is Salvador, in more ways than one. If you wanted a career retrospective, this is it.

More than anything, “Pain & Glory” is a film that celebrates how in sync real life and filmmaking can be for some artists. How someone pulls from their own life in order to shape the make believe, and how self-serving the experience can be. It’s how the fantasy can feed the inevitability, and the cost of it all when the chips are counted in old age. I think anyone could sit down, take this movie in, and attach it to their own life-and understand its relevance to the movies instantly at the same time.

Banderas is magnificent. I don’t think he’s given a better performance before, at least not that one that encapsulates his versatile abilities. He’s always been a charming presence who can light up a movie no matter what size role he has, but here he gives a performance that unfolds slowly over the near two hour running time. We don’t know all there is to know about Salvador in the beginning; Banderas draws that map himself.

If you combined Clint Eastwood and Robert Altman, I think you’d land at Almodovar. All three directors let their actors discover their own dance routines in the house they built. There’s a freedom to Banderas’ work here, as there is with Penelope Cruz and Nora Novas.

The wonderful thing about these independent foreign films is how they come off as ordinary slices of real life being played out slowly in front of you. There’s a beautiful interaction between Salvador and an old face from the past (Leonardo Sbaraglia) in his apartment that moves to its own beat. Another scene shows Salvador reconnecting with an actor he once despised (Asier Etxeandia), where the two men take part in a certain activity that activates Mallo’s creative mind.

By the end, you’re just smiling. That’s how this film left me: in a state of contemplation and appreciation of everything I have, and how I got there.

I’ve never fallen for an Almodovar film as hard as I did this film, perhaps due to the fact that “Pain & Glory” truly reflects the true spell that filmmaking can take on a life. How does life measure up when the fantasy always seems to be ahead? Can you undo bad decisions with better ones later on? When is it time to concede and accept who you are and where you came from? All of this hit me like a ton of bricks.

When you review a movie, the idea is to transfer what a film did for you to a stranger. It’s not just saying how good or bad it was, or simply whether it’s worth seeing. A LOT OF PEOPLE can do that. A film critic has to describe the effect and execution of a film. Did it make a dent, or just eat up some of your time?

“Pain & Glory” left a dent in me. A good one. I implore you to go see it and get swept up in a film that is equal parts sweet, simplistic, patient, and honest.

*All dialogue is Spanish and subtitled 

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