Even before Pedro Almodóvar’s new movie, “Pain and Glory,” screened this week at the Cannes Film Festival, the movie’s poster offered a telling hint: the shadow cast by the star Antonio Banderas forms the familiar, impish silhouette of his director.
Did that mean the 69-year-old Almodóvar was embarking on his most personal project yet? Having now seen the film, and after speaking to both Banderas and his director, I can say that’s putting it mildly.
In “Pain and Glory,” Banderas plays Salvador Mallo, an acclaimed Spanish director who got his start with provocative movies not unlike the ones Banderas used to star in for Almodóvar, which included “Law of Desire,” “Matador” and “Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!” Banderas as Mallo even wears clothes from Almodóvar’s closet and lives in an apartment made to resemble Almodóvar’s own, which had early audiences doing a double take.
“In Spain, many people told me that there is a moment where they don’t see Antonio and they see myself,” Almodóvar told reporters at a Cannes luncheon this week. “It’s very curious, and for Antonio, very flattering.”
As Mallo spends this episodic film pondering his own mortality and wondering whether he has the stamina to embark on a new production, he wrestles with a late-in-life heroin addiction that Almodóvar invented for “Pain and Glory.” But much of the film is autobiographical, from Mallo’s health issues to a tragic breakup that both the character and Almodóvar himself have never quite gotten over.
It was enough to take Banderas by surprise when Almodóvar first sent him the script. “He said to me, you’re going to find a lot of references to friends and people we know, Antonio — but I didn’t know that I was going to find him!” Banderas said. “There were things there I never thought he was going to expose, not even to his friends.”
Though Banderas has been working with Almodóvar since the beginning of their careers, his casting was not a slam dunk.
“I thought about him, but I was not completely sure,” Almodóvar said. “My list of Salvadors were three, and I’m not going to tell you the other two — some of them you know. But I needed to have a talk with Antonio about the character, because what I wanted from him was the opposite of this epic mood that Antonio has. I wanted him to show his fragility.”
The result is one of the most acclaimed performances of the festival, a tender, quiet turn by Banderas that may even go on to secure the 58-year-old actor his first Oscar nomination. “Pedro doesn’t want you to use tricks and tools that work for others, that work for you, that work for audiences,” Banderas said. “No, he wants truth.”
Still, the truth can be tricky when you’re inhabiting a role based on your director. What’s more, Banderas was tasked with showing a muted side of Almodóvar that the vivacious auteur rarely displays in public.
“It’s weird to play a character who lived, more weird if he’s still alive — because he’s producing more information every day — and extraordinarily rare that he is behind the camera saying, ‘Action!’ to you,” Banderas said. “To deal with all of these things was not easy.”
Fortunately, Almodóvar was able to put some distance between himself and Mallo once the shoot began. “From the moment these stories are written on paper to become a script, they don’t belong to my personal experience anymore,” Almodóvar said. “Although the set was the exact replica of my life, I never had the slightest impression of being in my place. I was just being a director, like on the other sets, helping my actors do their best.”
Just don’t ask him to do it again. After “Pain and Glory,” Almodóvar hopes to move on to adaptations of other authors’ work.
“I cannot repeat this formula,” the director said, though he smiled as he added one caveat: “Of course my life gives enough material to make a sequel.”
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