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How Spanish Filmmaker Pedro Almodóvar Drew From His Own Life For 'Pain And Glory'


Spanish filmmaker Pedro Almodovar is a superstar of world cinema. For 40 years, he's earned Oscars and had box office success telling stories of edgy, sexually liberated characters. Antonio Banderas and Penelope Cruz, two actors he has worked with many times before, star in his latest work "Pain And Glory." As NPR's Bilal Qureshi reports, it is Almodovar's most personal film.

BILAL QURESHI, BYLINE: Pedro Almodovar turned 70 last week. For years, he's suffered from crippling pain that's made traveling, even making movies, a challenge. The character at the center of his new movie is also a filmmaker with many ailments, which he lists in their entirety.


ANTONIO BANDERAS: (As Salvador Mallo, speaking Spanish).

QURESHI: In real life, Pedro Almodovar says before making his last film, he felt he couldn't go on.

PEDRO ALMODOVAR: (Through interpreter) For me, it was more about a period of a year leading up to the making of "Julieta" where I really struggled with the fact that I was worried that I might not be able to make films, where I wasn't sure whether I would have the mobility. And it's the kind of thing also that makes you withdraw from people because you don't really want to talk about this problem and this anxiety with people, so you stop sort of seeing people, and you become more and more isolated.

QURESHI: That isolation forms the backdrop for "Pain And Glory." It's the story of an aging filmmaker looking back at his life, and the resemblance to Almodovar is intentional. Even the apartment is a recreation of Almodovar's, filled with his own paintings and vibrant furniture. As his character crushes tablets to numb the pain, his mind returns to happier memories of his rural childhood.


UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Singing in Spanish).

QURESHI: Almodovar grew up in the region of La Mancha. He left his conservative village for Madrid in 1968, and just a few years later, he was at the center of a cultural renaissance after the death of dictator Francisco Franco.

RAJENDRA ROY: His depiction of queer lives and queer sex is very much about liberation.

QURESHI: Rajendra Roy is the chief curator for film at the Museum of Modern Art.

ROY: And it goes back to his origins as an artist that really was formed in a fascist regime. And his embrace of queerness, of otherness, was not only a kind of strategy artistically and a reflection of his own life. It was an actual political act and an act of liberation.

ALMODOVAR: (Through interpreter) Even though I was obviously quite a free person and one might even characterize me as somewhat scandalous, I really kept that aspect of myself away from my mother. It wasn't a way of necessarily hiding myself or of not telling the truth, but it was more just out of respect and also because there wasn't really any need for me to sort of perform with my mother. And so there was just this deep understanding about who I was and the respect for the generation that she came from.

QURESHI: His relationship with his mother forms the soul of the new film, as his brother and longtime producer Agustin Almodovar explains.

AGUSTIN ALMODOVAR: (Through interpreter) There's actually a sequence in the movie where the mother is telling him her dream from her hospital bed, and at one point, she says, stop looking at me with that storyteller face. And a lot of these stories come from my sisters, who are older than us, and they know that in telling us a lot of these stories about our family history, somehow, that's going to leave a trace in Pedro's narrative.

QURESHI: His mother kept her distance from his life in Madrid, says Pedro Almodovar.

ALMODOVAR: (Through interpreter) My mother never watched any of my films. She was very proud and very respectful of what I did, but she had some intuition about the fact that she might not like my films if she saw them.

QURESHI: Her intuition about his stories was right. Since his breakthrough in the 1980s, all of Almodovar's films, including "Pain And Glory," have put those on the margins of society at the center, says film curator Rajendra Roy.

ROY: It's not for nothing that the kiss between Antonio Banderas' character and his long-lost love is one of the most romantically charged scenes on screen in many years. Yes, it's a queer kiss. It's a queer kiss between two middle-aged men, but it's also a highly freaking romantic kiss between two human beings. And that's the transcendent nature of Pedro - right? - is he can take something that once was very isolated to a hyper-specific and marginalized community and make it universal.

QURESHI: "Pain And Glory" has already been released in Europe to rave reviews.

ALMODOVAR: (Through interpreter) For me, it's marvelous because the story is so close to me. It's not something that you can predict either at the moment of writing or shooting. You're aware of the technical quality of what you're doing but not of what it will mean to others, and when that happens, it's almost like a miracle.

QURESHI: Pedro Almodovar's brother and producer Agustin says making "Pain And Glory" has renewed his brother's spirit.

ALMODOVAR: (Through interpreter) I can tell you the movie was actually very therapeutic for Pedro, that self-reflection. And I can tell you he has the creative drive he had 20 years ago. He's working on two stories at the same time as he always did, and making this movie has really pushed away that fear that the ideas would dry up. And he's really in full force at the moment.

QURESHI: And "Pain And Glory" is Spain's official entry to this year's Oscars. Bilal Qureshi, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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