Great artists talk as much to themselves as they do to the world — Pedro Almodóvar perhaps more than most. The director’s 21st feature, “Pain and Glory,” was released Oct. 4 and, like all his best work, is infused with images and ideas from his previous films.
In a sense, he always has been. From his early movies, which reflected the anarchic spirit of the Movida Madrileña movement that followed the death of dictator Francisco Franco; through the mature, award-winning streak of “All About My Mother,” “Talk To Her” and “Volver;” to this melancholy new phase, which sees him preoccupied with regret and mortality, Almodóvar has never hidden his interests. In “Pain and Glory,” lost time — the anxiety spurred by missed opportunities and unresolved relationships — takes center stage.
To better enjoy and understand “Pain and Glory,” here are five essential Almodóvar experiences to prepare you.
"What Have I Done To Deserve This?" (1984)
Pedophile dentists, forged Nazi letters, death by ham, a house lizard . . . some jokes in Almodóvar’s fourth film have aged better than others, but it’s a good place to start. “What Have I Done To Deserve This?” is a surreal comedy about a sexually frustrated housewife (Carmen Maura) living with a useless taxi driver husband and adolescent sons who sell drugs (and their bodies) to stay afloat.
Almodóvar scholar Paul Julian Smith suggests that the director seeks “truth in travesty” in his early movies — a perfect description of the offbeat, seriocomic affect at work here. Maura is luminous, heartbreaking even in the midst of this claustrophobic farce. Equally memorable is live-in abuela Chus Lampreave, addicted to soft drinks and forever pining for a return to “the village,” that traditional, rural milieu from which so many Spaniards hail, in a burlesque foreshadowing of Mallo’s mother in “Pain and Glory.” Lampreave’s brilliant timing and joke-thick glasses would crop up in small roles for years to come; she’s wonderful every time.
"All About My Mother" (1999)
Almodóvar’s style developed significantly in the years that followed. His plotting, once careless, tightened. His emotional range broadened. There’s a noticeable raising of stakes. “All About My Mother,” which riffs on Old Hollywood, Tennessee Williams and Almodóvar’s own oeuvre, was a turning point. His first movie to compete at Cannes, it won him the best-director award there and later the Oscar for foreign-language film.
The plot follows a transplant nurse on a journey into the past following the death of her teenage son. She’s in search of her transgender former lover, whom she hasn’t seen since getting pregnant. En route she becomes involved with a lesbian diva, a pregnant nun and a wisecracking transgender sex worker.
There are numerous examples of the telepathic relationship between Almodóvar’s films here, not least the ironic reincarnation of a scene from “The Flower of My Secret” (1995) in which a mother must decide whether to donate the healthy organs of her dead son. In the earlier film, it’s staged as educational role play; in “All About My Mother,” played for real, it’s devastating. This warm, hugely moving film remains a favorite among those who disfavor the frostier tone of what followed.
"Bad Education" (2004)
With its Hitchcockian credit sequence, fatal deceits and noirish twists, “Bad Education” is a deliciously amoral erotic thriller. Like “Pain and Glory,” it alludes not just to Almodóvar’s past but to wider cinematic history. A plaintive, doomed child sings “Moon River” on a day trip with the priest who will ruin his life. Boys in love convene covertly at a screening of the kitsch classic “Esa Mujer.” Years later, a transgender woman visits the priest who had abused her — the film’s inciting incident — in a scene straight from “Law of Desire,” which in turn lifted it from a story Almodóvar wrote in the 1970s. Thus “Bad Education” pitches into a kind of narrative quicksand, destabilizing our sense of the knowable. In “Pain and Glory,” which features seminary scenes that uneasily recall those played here, the noirish aspects are stripped away, but the instability of memory and the devastations wrought by time remain central.
“I’m afraid of the encounter with the past that’s coming back to confront my life,” sings Penélope Cruz in the middle of Almodóvar’s 16th feature. (She’s lip-syncing, actually, but the significance of that device in Almodóvar’s work is another article.)
“Volver” is movie-as-seance: It resurrects a plot device from “What Have I Done” (its kitchen homicide), a plot idea from “The Flower of My Secret” (sticking the body in the freezer) and Maura, with whom Almodóvar had not worked since the breakout hit “Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown” (1988).
Opening with a beautiful shot of women cleaning their family plots, “Volver” marks a pensive turn for Almodóvar. Mortality, betrayal and misunderstanding are on his mind — not to mention, as ever, the resilience of women, the importance of family and, less scornful now than wistful, the pull of “the village.”
It was said that the death of Almodóvar’s mother inspired “Volver,” which may explain the emphasis on forgiveness and redemption, and the melancholy portraits of Maura and Lampreave, both visibly aged since their early turns as chicas Almodóvar. “Pain and Glory” returns to these themes, as Mallo recalls the bitter reckoning occasioned by his mother’s twilight years.
"Broken Embraces" (2009)
“Broken Embraces,” like “Law of Desire” and “Bad Education,” puts a film director in mortal peril. Here he is the blind, pseudonymous Harry Caine (Lluís Homar), who years before, as Mateo Blanco, had a doomed affair with one of his lead actresses (Cruz). The film they make before things unravel is a sort of parallel-universe “Women on the Verge,” featuring some of the same actors and much of the same plot.
Is this a sign that Almodóvar feels displaced, alienated from his madcap early work? “Broken Embraces” is certainly one of his coldest movies, a film of almost sterile glamour. In Blanco/Caine, one might discern a prototype for Banderas’s Mallo, who’s also near-paralyzed by his ailments and blocked artistically by an unresolved past.
A complex work, “Broken Embraces” records Almodóvar’s leap into his late style, that fractious realm of irresolution, contradiction and uneasy accommodation. It’s also a gateway to the more refined pleasures of “Pain and Glory,” which strips away the melodrama of Almodóvar’s darkest work (see also: 2011’s “The Skin I Live In”) and lets a little light back in.