Pedro Almodóvar’s latest film, “Pain and Glory,” feels so personal that you don’t so much watch it as live it. Salvador, played by Antonio Banderas as an obvious stand-in for Almodóvar himself, is an aging Spanish film director struggling with physical ailments and an inability to continue with his work. In his bright apartment, his mind sometimes woozy with medication or heroin, Salvador’s consciousness drifts to events and emotions from his past: sunny afternoons in childhood with his beautiful, determined mother (Penélope Cruz); his first preteen encounter with sexual attraction; his first adult relationship, torn apart by addiction; his passionate, sustaining love for cinema.
Almodóvar, who’s been making movies since the 1970s, makes “Pain and Glory” a dreamlike, free-floating experience; it’s both a story and a storyteller’s version of that story, interwoven. (In one scene, Salvador’s now-elderly mother, played by Julieta Serrano, accuses him of having “that storyteller’s look.”) He and Banderas have spent entire careers together — the two men collaborated on numerous films in the 1980s, and Banderas more recently appeared in Almodóvar’s “The Skin I Live In” and “I’m So Excited!” — and “Pain and Glory” seems to sum up that history. It’s as if we don’t need to be introduced to Salvador, as we already know him. We know the bright colors he surrounds himself with — an Almodóvar trademark — and we know his need to look back on the past, capturing it in magical light.
I’m hesitant to say too much about this film, as I suspect the spell it casts might be quite personal to each viewer. I’ll just say that Banderas, giving Salvador a voice softly husky with the effort of living another day, is gently and utterly mesmerizing. (There’s a scene mid-movie, in which Salvador is reunited with a former love, that feels so intimate you almost feel you shouldn’t be in the room.) Cruz, in just a short amount of screen time, creates a mother both dreamlike and very human. And Almodóvar shows us that, even after nearly two dozen features over several decades, he can still hold an audience in his hand — and surprise it. The gorgeous, perfect final shot of “Pain and Glory” — I might have gasped out loud — will make you feel glad to be alive, and in a movie theater.
★★★½ “Pain and Glory,” with Antonio Banderas, Asier Etxeandia, Leonardo Sbaraglia, Nora Navas, Julieta Serrano, César Vicente, Asier Flores, Penélope Cruz. Written and directed by Pedro Almodóvar. 113 minutes. Rated R for drug use, some graphic nudity and language. In Spanish, with English subtitles. Opens Nov. 8 at SIFF Cinema Egyptian, Parkway Plaza, Alderwood Mall 16.