Like the protagonist of his new film Pain and Glory, Pedro Almodovar suffers from debilitating back pain. It can be relieved in the weightless environment of water and, about two years ago, the film director was floating in a pool when a memory came back to him. It was of his mother and other women washing clothes in the river near his childhood home in the region of La Mancha in central Spain.
“It was one of my beautiful memories, when I had fun with my mother and the neighbours,” he said, alternating between English and Spanish during an interview at the Toronto International Film Festival in September. “It was like a festival – it was tough work, but they were singing.”
And so, Pain and Glory was born from that watery memory, which creates a scene of brightly hued nostalgia at the centre of the film.
“I didn’t want to talk about my pain, others suffer much more than I do … and passive pain is not very filmic. It’s dull,” he said. “But my situation led me to my past, and that alternation between my current state and my memories made me think there was a story there.”
At first, as he wrote a script about a suffering film director recalling his youth, he barely recognized how deep he was wandering into autobiographical territory. “As the story moved ahead, there came a point where I realized I would really have to plunge inside myself for it to keep progressing. I did have a moment of vertigo: Did I really want to go into myself to that extent?”
If he was able to, it was thanks in part to another collaboration with actor Antonio Banderas. They had worked together regularly at the height of their early fame in the 1980s, on Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown and Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!, before Banderas moved to Hollywood. Then, they had reunited in 2011 on The Skin I Live In, where the actor played a plastic surgeon. So, the pair had re-established a high level of comfort by the time the director was asking the star to play some version of Almodovar himself.
“We were very close during the eighties and hung out together every night. It was very convenient that he was in the film,” Almodovar said. “I told him if you think you need to imitate me, you have my permission, but he said, no, he had to do it in his own way.”
The results are not flattering: The director in the movie is not merely physically pained, creatively blocked and utterly absorbed by this predicament, he is also downright selfish, in particular toward his loyal assistant.
“I didn’t want him to be a hero; I didn’t want to make him charming,” Almodovar said. “He is certainly someone who is privileged, who has done well in life, but that kind of pain makes you a grumpy person.”
He directed this alter ego on a set that perfectly reproduced his own Madrid apartment, full of bold red cupboards, blue tiles and modernist art. Crew asked him if it wasn’t weird returning to the identical apartment at night, but the director was unfazed by the blurring of art and life: “When I was shooting, I didn’t feel Antonio was myself. … Perhaps it was weird for others, but not for me. I separate very well what was a movie and what my life was.”
Still, the film is all about that connection. The plot turns on chance encounters between the fictional director, Salvador Mallo, and figures from his past, coincidences that eventually save him from his funk by returning him to his art.
“Cinema is everything for this man,” Almodovar said. “When he finds a story he can tell, he sees what gives his life meaning.”
The most fanciful of these encounters triggers memories of Salvador’s childhood when his loving, working-class mother (played by Penelope Cruz) does her best to get a proper education for her gifted son while making a home out of a cave – a traditional Spanish dwelling built into the rock that produces another powerful image in the flashback scenes.
Meanwhile, in the present, a request to attend a film event with an actor that Salvador has not seen in years launches him down a twisting path that eventually allows him to retrieve a love lost to addiction. This strand of Pain and Glory takes Almodovar back to the start of his career in Madrid in the early 1980s; it was the period of the movida madrilena, the city’s vibrant and permissive counterculture that exploded after the death of dictator Francisco Franco in 1975.
“I was very lucky to be young and live in that period. … It was a marvelous time for me, but there were a lot of people who didn’t make it,” he said, recalling how young Spaniards began to experiment with the forbidden, imitating musical icons such as Iggy Pop, Lou Reed and David Bowie. “Heroin was a way of expressing our freedom.”
In the film, Salvador, who has lost a lover to the drug, tries heroin himself but with no irredeemable consequences: “I didn’t want to make him an addict, but a tourist in addiction,” Almodovar said, suggesting the drug offers the pained character a way out by hinting at the possibility of suicide. But if the drug symbolizes the prospect of death, neither the real director – who says he has never tried it – nor the fictional one, who sidesteps it, take up the offer. In Pain and Glory, as in many a film by Almodovar, it is joyous life that triumphs in the end.
Pain and Glory opens Oct. 18 in Toronto, Vancouver and Montreal