For much of his career, Pedro Almodóvar has had the reputation of being zany, even frivolous. From Labyrinth of Passion and Dark Habits onward through his international breakthrough Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown (1988), Almodóvar's scenarios have most often seemed the epitome of camp — a series of tongue-in-cheek send-ups of soap operas and melodramas designed to provoke knowing chuckles.
The veteran Spanish filmmaker's biggest fault seemed to be that his films often had a sameness to them, as if he were remaking familiar situations over and over, from slightly different angles. Every now and then, with such efforts as Bad Education, Volver, and All About My Mother, Almodóvar dazzled us with the depth of his storytelling talents. Yet even dedicated admirers remain leery of this master recycler.
Almodóvar turned 70 last week. We're tempted to label his latest, Pain & Glory — the story of an ill, aging filmmaker (Almodóvar regular Antonio Banderas) confronting his own mortality — a fairly predictable "old man's picture." And it is. But as the tale of Banderas' Salvador Mallo settles down among us and the worn-out, drug-addicted, lifelong hedonist adds up his accounts and conjures up visions, something strange happens. He carries us away with him.
Moviegoers who love Spain and the Spanish soul will glory in Mallo's confessions. Penélope Cruz, the director's vedette, is the essence of humble dignity as Mallo's mother Jacinta (in flashback), ashamed to be living in a cueva yet proud of her perceptive son, who knows how to read. Asier Etxeandia is positively hypnotic as Mallo's ex-squeeze, a junkie who put the monkey on his lover's back. Argentine native Leonardo Sbaraglia plays another old flame, and other well-loved faces appear: Cecilia Roth, Susi Sánchez, Marisol Muriel, et al. Autobiographical? Apparently. Stay with it, it's worth it.