A famous film director confronts creativity issues. Fellini’s “8½”? He revisits his boyhood and the first intimations of his love of movies. Fellini’s “Amarcord”? No, Pedro Almodóvar’s “Pain and Glory.” One of the quiet marvels of this understated yet often deeply moving film is how skillfully — which is to say unobtrusively — the filmmaker weaves together past and present. Almodóvar directed his first feature more than 40 years ago. Yes, he is a celebrated talent and distinct sensibility: a brand-name auteur. It’s easy to overlook that he’s also a real pro.
If one word jumps out from the previous paragraph it’s “understated.” Whether in comedy or drama (or melodrama), understated is just about the last word associated with Almodóvar. But he turned 70 this month, and a sense of three-score-and-ten can be felt throughout “Pain and Glory,” and in a very good way. An artist who has nothing to prove, he finds himself with much more to ponder.
The first thing we see in “Pain and Glory” is a man sitting in a chair underwater, naked but for a pair of bathing trunks. The near-nakedness matters because it lets us see the surgical scar that runs from sternum to waist. Yes, the image is startlingly surreal, but its inspiration is therapeutic. The man, Salvador, is underwater as a kind of hydrotherapy. We soon learn (in a deftly done animated sequence) about his health problems: insomnia, depression, a spinal fusion, asthma, mysterious coughing fits, and pretty much constant pain. That first word in the title of “Pain and Glory” is no metaphor. This is a very medical movie. Along with reflectiveness and (relative) quietude, health issues are part of the film’s septuagenarian side.
Salvador is a famous film director. Playing him is Antonio Banderas. This is Banderas’s eighth movie with Almodóvar, who helped make him a star. The performance won Banderas the best actor award at Cannes this year. He brings an easy authority to the role. It’s more than three decades since he first starred in an Almodóvar movie (“Matador,” 1986). At 59, Banderas retains those smoldering matinee-idol looks, only he’s aged into them. A grizzled beard tempers those looks and lends them a relaxed authority not previously there.
Salvador has been asked to attend a screening of an old film of his. He and the star, Alberto (Asier Etxeandia), have long been on the outs. An attempted reconciliation sets the plot in motion. What keeps the narrative going are the flashbacks to Salvador’s boyhood. The converted cave (that’s right, cave) in which he and his parents lived is like an Iberian hobbit hole. It’s a tribute to Almodóvar that such an unusual, even bizarre setting seems as natural as grown-up Salvador’s swanky-bohemian apartment.
Banderas isn’t the only Almodóvar standby here. Penélope Cruz plays young Salvador’s mother, Julieta Serrano plays her in old age. You can feel Cecilia Roth’s pleasure as the actress who helps put Salvador in touch with Alberto. Nora Navas, as Salvador’s devoted assistant, Mercedes, is a new recruit, but she sure does look like Carmen Maura (wearing a blonde wig, no less).
Perhaps the best way to appreciate “Pain and Glory” is as an extended series of two-shots: scenes with Salvador and Alberto, Salvador and Mercedes, Salvador and an ex-lover (Leonardo Sbaraglia), Salvador and his aged mother, young Salvador and his mother. “Pain and Glory” is a character study, yes, but Salvador is a character best revealed in relation to others rather than in close-ups. A director working his way through a creative impasse sounds like the most self-centered film formula there is. That’s not the case here.
Just to remind us that he’s Almodóvar — and to make it up to us that Serrano looks so implausibly different from Cruz — the movie ends with a bravura, meta-movie flourish that’s at once dazzling and matter of fact. It’s one more example here of Almodóvar’s ability to take pairs — not just people, but concepts (like, say, present and past, or pain and glory) — and happily join them.
PAIN AND GLORY
Written and directed by Pedro Almodóvar. Starring Antonio Banderas, Asier Etxeandia, Leonardo Sbaraglia, Nora Navas, Julieta Serrano, Penélope Cruz. At Boston Common, Kendall Square, Coolidge Corner, and West Newton. 117 minutes. R (nudity, drug use, language)