Zoë Rose Bryant’s review published on Letterboxd:
Pain and Glory provides writer-director Pedro Almodóvar with the opportunity to take audiences along for a playful, pleasant, and poignant trip down memory lane led by an effortlessly endearing Antonio Banderas.
Oddly enough, there are a plethora of movies this year centered around older men looking back on their life as a whole and reconciling prior triumphs with past failures. From other awards contenders like Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood to Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman, this seems like very powerful and potent thematic material for 2019 releases to explore. However, Pain and Glory stands apart from the pack by neglecting to set its narrative within any other genre; this isn’t a historical fantasy or a gangster epic - it’s a languid, leisurely exploration of one artist’s life with little embellishment or melodrama required.
This isn’t a film Almodóvar would’ve been able to make at any other point in his career. Pain and Glory is a story that requires maturity and deft grace, as the film would be zapped of all its unadulterated authenticity were it not for Almodóvar’s intimate and vulnerable approach to the material. It takes a veteran director and screenwriter to bring such candor to their work, and that is Pain and Glory’s primary strength. The film itself may be a tad aimless and ambling, primarily in the first half, but it manages to land an crushing emotional impact in spite of its plotlessness. Simply put, the story Almodóvar is telling here doesn’t need a very structured narrative; as an exploration into how an aging auteur overcomes physical and mental ailments to regain his creative wit, the script works far better by zigzagging from memorable life event to memorable life event, briefly touching on fraught friendships or ravishing romantic encounters before unexpectedly tying all these threads together in a wholly fulfilling fashion with a breathtaking final frame.
As writer-director Salvador Mallo (Almodóvar’s semi-autobiographical stand-in), Antonio Banderas turns in the best work of his illustrious career by far with a introspective and nuanced performance that wholeheartedly deserves endless acclaim. The way Banderas is able to balance Mallo’s subtle winking playfulness and mischievousness right alongside his deep-rooted insecurities is frankly stunning, and he manages to achieve this feat with zero bombast or pretension of any kind. Banderas has a way of relaying endless reservoirs of emotion simply through his eyes, whether this be delivered with a look of painful mourning or appreciative admiration. He too, like Almodóvar, benefits from his age and experience in bringing such a layered and world-weary role to life. Asier Etxeandia is another standout as Alberto Crespo, the star of one of Mallo’s hit films whom he hasn’t talked to in the past 30 years due to a conflict that unfolded behind the scenes of said film. Mallo and Crespo’s repartee never misses a beat, commonly altering between scintillating and strained within the same scene. Penélope Cruz makes an inviting impression as Mallo’s compassionate and overworked mother within flashbacks, while newcomer Asier Flores (who portrays Mallo as a child) proves to be quite a force to be reckoned with as well in said flashbacks.
Pain and Glory most definitely earns its leisurely place, allowing viewers to settle into the shoes of Salvador Mallo and take a walk throughout the setbacks and successes of his life. It may not offer groundbreaking ruminations on aging or creative pursuits, but as a thoroughly honest and heartfelt character study, it prospers wildly, primarily thanks to Almodóvar’s sincere screenplay and Antonio Banderas’s beautiful lead performance.