Pedro Almodóvar gets it: “Pain and Glory” looks like a swan song. The movie finds revered Spanish filmmaker Salvador Mallo — a fragile Antonio Banderas, who could be cosplaying Almodóvar at Comic-Con — battling drug addiction, inner demons, and an aging body as he struggles with an existential crisis. It’s not hard to conclude that the 70-year-old auteur is ready to throw in the towel.
“I suspect there might be something in the movie that feels like I’m saying goodbye,” Almodóvar said, sitting down for an interview in New York a few days before the movie’s release. He let go with a gentle laugh. “Eh, I hope not. You don’t know what’s going to happen tomorrow, but no, I absolutely want to keep on making movies.”
In fact, Almodóvar said he had ambitious plans to direct his first English-language feature, in a nearly completed screenplay adapted from “five short tales by one American writer” into a story that takes place in Texas, Oakland, and Mexico. He’s also contemplating two shorter works — an hour-long piece and another he estimated at 20 minutes — that he hoped to complete before shooting the feature next year.
“These shorter pieces I’m working on completely break tonally and thematically with the last film,” he said, slipping into Spanish to describe one of them as a “comedia surrealista,” a surrealist comedy, then clarifying to his translator, “Diga lo absurdo!”: Call it absurdist!
He grinned, his white patches of stubble reaching up to inviting eyes. “In some ways, I feel like right now I’m beginning a new cycle, maybe even a more daring cycle than I have in the past,” he said. “We’ll see what happens.”
“Pain and Glory” does chart a path to new beginnings, though it would spoil the brilliant final shot to explain exactly why. Needless to say, Almodóvar’s most satisfying movie in years is his first to set aside snazzy melodramatic swings in favor of a more intimate approach that invites viewers into his world. He knows it’s been a long time coming.
“In this particular film, I realize that I’ve been able to reach the spectator in a more direct way than perhaps I have in my earlier films,” he said. “The reaction might be that I’ll make another film that has the same flavor, but my personal natural reaction is to do the opposite.”
That much, at least, has a ring of familiarity to it. Ever since he rose to prominence in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, veering from the wicked comedic thriller “Matador” to the emotional Oscar nominee “Woman on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown” to the twisted romcom “Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!”, Almodóvar has kept audiences engaged through sheer unpredictability. His movies careen through histrionic, often outrageous plots even as they remain grounded in vulnerable characters struggling with intimate challenges. The Almodóvar brand is at once intangible and precise — lush, sexy, and bursting with all kinds of conflict, stitched together with tonal swings galore. “Pain and Glory” explores the toll of such vivid storytelling on a single world-weary mind.
Almodóvar’s work epitomized the new freedoms of Spain as democracy took hold when Francisco Franco’s dictatorship ended in 1975. On a certain level, Almodóvar was Spain’s answer to John Waters: an eccentric queer storyteller eager to interrogate taboos with boisterous glee. However, the filmmaker said he felt this classification has often obscured the layered narratives and rich imagery that has defined his filmmaking as much as the range of amorous characters at their center.
“From the very beginning, my films have seemed very scandalous in both the United States and Europe,” he said. “People really focused on the different kinds of sexuality and genders that I represented in my films, and that had to do with an entire gamut of different kinds of sexual orientations that I was representing as true to life as I could. So much emphasis was placed on that that people didn’t pay attention to the cinematographic elements.”
Then there was the way Almodóvar played with existing traditions. Before Tarantino mashed up Westerns and kung-fu movies, Almodóvar borrowed liberally from Douglas Sirk and Luis Buñuel. “There is a unique eclecticism in my stories, a hybridity that jumps across genres, that seems kind of strange to people,” he said. “It’s taken some time for critics to really accept that as a natural way in which I sort of live my stories and tell them.”
But one of the more remarkable aspects of Almodóvar’s legacy involves the consistent enthusiasm for his work beyond the insular arena of festivals, critics, and the various awards they dole out. According to Box Office Mojo, Almodóvar’s films have grossed $369.7 million worldwide, and while the American box office is just a small piece of that figure, it doesn’t begin to capture the DVDs of his work filling shelves of devout viewers around the world. With the support of his producer sibling Agustin, Almodóvar enjoys a rock-star profile in Spain, but will regularly crowd theaters around the world whenever he makes an appearance. In North America, he remains the rare foreign director with a consistent audience eager to embrace his latest effort.
Michael Barker, the Sony Pictures Classics co-president who has released Almodóvar’s films in the U.S. for more than 30 years, told me that the enthusiasm for “a film by Almodóvar” stems back to an earlier film culture. “When we started in the business years ago, directors like Fellini and Bertolucci were pop stars with filmgoers,” Barker said. “I don’t think we have so many of them now. Almodóvar is that type. This idea of the filmmaker as a star. And he delivers again and again.”
Well, almost. Even diehard Almodóvar fans must admit that, the past decade or so, his movies have lacked the emotional clarity of his best work. After the wondrous ghost story “Volver” and introspective body horror of “The Skin I Live In,” he careened off-track to the dopey airplane satire “I’m So Excited!”, a mess of half-baked sex jokes and thin characterizations, followed by his muted Alice Munro adaptation “Julieta,” which felt so restrained that every scene begged for the intrusion of Almodóvar’s voice. After that 2016 release, Almodóvar was working on a screenplay inspired by Netflix’s “Making a Murderer” when he grew frustrated by his inability to relate to the jobs of the characters in the story. “I had to make many revisions, but at the end I was not happy with it,” he said. “I got bored studying things I didn’t know.”
Stashing it in his desk with other unfinished projects, he started sifting through some of them, including a screenplay about a heroin addict called “The Addiction.” That would become the biographical project that the character of Salvador writes in “Pain and Glory,” and provided a starting point for Almodóvar’s more introspective approach.
“I thought about how I was feeling, and decided I was going to write something very close to me,” he said. “That meant I didn’t need to consult with anyone because it was all in my work. And that pragmatic feeling pushed me to write.”
Almodóvar insists that a lot about “Pain and Glory” is pure fiction. He has never tried heroin, as Salvador does for the first time while cajoling an estranged actor into joining him for an anniversary screening of their old collaboration. “But I know very well what it is,” he said. “These characters lived through the ‘80s, when there was an explosion of freedom because of the democracy.”
However, other aspects of Salvador’s life echoed Almodóvar’s upbringing, including an extensive flashback to Salvador’s Catholic childhood (with Penelope Cruz as the doting mother); others reflect Almodóvar’s physical struggles, including the character’s crippling back pain. He had back surgery that immobilized him for a year, and slowed down his ability to do any work.
“I know very intimately the fear that you might not be able to shoot because you’re not in the shape that it requires,” he said. “Let’s just say that everything that happened in the movie didn’t necessarily happen to me, but it could have.” He doesn’t talk about the heartbreak factor, the way Salvador is haunted by his relationship with a man who resurfaces in the movie’s poignant third act. In general, Almodóvar has been reticent to reveal himself through his movies.
“When the script became deeply about myself, I did have a moment of hesitation,” he said. “Did I want to keep to keep on talking about myself this way? Because then I would have to go deeper. How can I say this?” He turned to his translator. “Soy muy doloroso,” he said, and she replied, “I’m very shy.” He shrugged. “Shy, yes.” She chimed in again: “Bashful, also works.”
These aspects of the movie also surprised Banderas, the filmmaker’s longtime collaborator. “We’ve been friends for almost 40 years and done eight movies,” Banderas said during a press conference for the movie at the New York Film Festival. “Our friendship has certain boundaries. Pedro is a very private person. I never tried to trespass those boundaries and I am always respectful of his private life. So I was surprised when I read the script that there were certain aspects of his personality that I didn’t know.”
Even when Banderas realized certain aspects of the story had been fictionalized, he remained skeptical: “The next thought in my mind is this: Are we only the things that we have done and that we have said? Or are we also the things that we have never said? The things we wanted to do and never did? In this case, Pedro Almodóvar’s movie is more Almodóvar than Almodóvar. In a way, he completed certain areas from that passage of his life by making this film.”
Almodóvar finished the script in a matter of months — long, by his finicky standards — and it found him rediscovering a new confidence in his talent. “I don’t know how you can teach someone to be creative,” he said, and laughed. “I don’t know people go to school to study that. It’s beyond that. It’s an inner quality that you either have, or you don’t.”
Despite his eagerness to embrace the future, Almodóvar does still worry about one aspect of the film industry that he has addressed in public before. As the 2018 Cannes jury president, he made headlines when he remarked about the need for movies to be seen in theaters, raising eyebrows over whether he would give the two Netflix titles a fair shake. He later clarified that he would, but two years later, still reels from the experience of sitting next to fellow juror Will Smith as the future “Bright” star made his case for the platform.
“I think what I said at that press conference at Cannes was a bit distorted, partly because I wasn’t translated correctly, and also because Will Smith went into this monologue about Netflix that had nothing to do with me,” Almodóvar said. “He was talking about his children, who both go to the movies and watch TV. But they’re privileged kids. They’re not the norm.”
Almodóvar said he had no problem with Netflix, noting that “Pain and Glory” was currently available on the platform in Spain, four months after its theatrical release there. “The point I continue to defend is that I don’t want to see theaters with big screens — which shares space with all the screens that have proliferated now — I don’t want to see that disappear,” he said. “In Spain, you’ve seen over the years hundreds of theaters close and there’s even small communities that don’t have a theater to put films out. In thinking about my childhood and how important the large-format screen was, this is a terrible development.”
One year after all that, however, Almodóvar was back at Cannes with “Pain and Glory” in competition, receiving his best reviews in ages. He didn’t score the Palme d’Or, but Banderas bagged a Best Actor trophy, and Sony Pictures Classics is already revving its engines for an aggressive awards season campaign that includes national retrospectives to remind audiences of the auteur’s sprawling achievements. Ever the sensitive soul, Almodóvar seems extra-charged by the pervasive enthusiasm. “The response has invigorated him,” Barker said. “His work is so important to him. I can’t imagine that moment where he decides he has nothing more to say. “
Above all else, it has reminded the director that he benefits from venturing into the unknown, trying new approaches that could easily work against him. “When I do these kind of risky things, I need to be very convinced that I want to do it,” he said. “I do it as mischief, to test my luck.” He smiled, turned to his translator, then decided to finish the thought on his own. “And if it doesn’t work out,” he said, “it doesn’t work out.”
“Pain and Glory” is now playing in New York and Los Angeles. It expands to more theaters in the coming weeks.