Though his tone has changed since he was making wildly sexy and narratively outrageous movies during Spain’s early post-Franco years, Pedro Almodovar still creates emotionally resonant cinema about passion, desire and romantic and maternal love. Opening Friday at the Embarcadero and Alamo Drafthouse, “Pain and Glory,” his latest such melodrama, ranks among his finest.
While this personal film is more contemplative than most Almodovar fare, it contains familiar elements: multiple time frames, stories within stories, twists of fate, the color red, Antonio Banderas and Penelope Cruz.
Banderas plays Salvador, an acclaimed Madrid-based filmmaker with Almodovar hair and a weary look. In a graphics-enhanced monologue, Salvador identifies the conditions — back pain, tinnitus, headaches, anxiety, depression — that have been preventing him from working. His life will be meaningless if he can’t make movies, he says.
To escape, Salvador retreats into memory, recalling his childhood spent with his warm-hearted mother, Jacinta (Cruz, naturally), in rural Spain.
A cinematheque screening of “Sabor,” one of Salvador’s 1980s gems, arranged by Salvador’s personal assistant, Mercedes (Nora Navas), triggers encounters with and memories of significant figures from Salvador’s past.
“Sabor” actor Alberto (Asier Etxeandia), to whom Salvador hasn’t spoken for decades, accepts Salvador’s invitation to join him onstage for a post-screening Q&A. Alberto, who smokes heroin, shares some of the drug with Salvador, who begins developing his own addiction.
A monologue written by Salvador and performed by Alberto brings another wonderful supporting character — Federico (Leonardo Sbaraglia), Salvador’s first love — back into Salvador’s life.
Salvador’s first crush, meanwhile, a builder named Eduardo (Cesar Vicente), appears in flashbacks featuring the 9-year-old Salvador (Asier Flores). When he glimpses Eduardo drying himself, naked, the boy faints.
Additional flashbacks feature the elderly Jacinta (Julieta Serrano), now a bitter woman, shortly before her death. “You haven’t been a good son,” she tells Salvador, likely referring to his abandonment of the Catholic Church and his devotion to filmmaking. She also dislikes his auto-fiction. He feels guilty, but can’t change who he is.
While not without an occasional frustration — the above-mentioned ailment monologue has an indulgent feel — “Pain and Glory” is eloquently constructed and emotionally compelling, with much below the surface.
Almodovar masterfully handles flashbacks, making past and present seem naturally connected. He shifts from truth to fiction with deftness and clarity. He inspires viewers to question the reliability of memory.
The excellent Banderas, in his eighth collaboration with Almodovar (others include “Matador” and “The Skin I Live In”), sheds his movie-star allure to believably portray, with nuance, his character’s malaise and physical decline. He movingly depicts Salvador’s desires and illustrates that Salvador, like Almodovar, will long have stories to tell.
As always, Almodovar supplies gorgeous colors and frequent humor. Salvador and Alberto’s botched Q&A is particularly memorable in the latter regard.
Pain and Glory
Three and a half stars
Starring: Antonio Banderas, Asier Etxeandia, Leonardo Sbaraglia, Penelope Cruz
Written and directed by: Pedro Almodovar
Running time: 1 hour, 58 minutes