It’s not uncommon for a filmmaker to turn to the medium in which they work for inspiration. Sometimes it’s the weight of a creative drought that can drive the artist inward in search of a creative muse; such as in the legendary case of Fellini‘s Sometimes it can be a desire to reflect on a life and career as they approach their twilight years. While one would hope that Pedro Almodóvar has several more years in which to delight and infuriate his audience, Pain and Glory has that undeniable sense of elegy about it. Thankfully the former punk rock star of Spanish cinema isn’t going out with a whimper. His latest is a quietly passionate and satisfying work with a possibly career-defining performance from Antonio Banderas.

Salvador Mallo (Banderas) is a famed filmmaker languishing in agonized retirement. The death of his mother four years before and some major back surgery have left him in racked with pain both physical and mental. Coaxed from public exile to present a restored print of his most famous work at a film festival, he reconnects with his past in the form of old collaborators and his childhood memories.

Pain and Glory operates very much on the same sober register as Almodóvar’s previous film Julieta. The dazzling colour palette that is his signature remains very much present, but this is Almodóvar at his most thoughtful. Even the meta trappings and self-reflexive nature are presented with little fanfare to maximise a bittersweet tang. This is a mature, reflective director at ease with his technique and confident in his storytelling. There remains however a little of the familiar mischief of old there as he plays with coming-of-age tropes and his own mythology, spinning a warm and golden yarn about Mallo’s childhood and sexual awakening that has more than the whiff of the unreliable narrator, or at least that his hindsight may be forming some cataracts.

As enjoyable as these scenes are, not least thanks to a customarily luminous Penelope Cruz as young Salva’s mother Jacinta, it is the moments of the ageing Mallo coming to terms with himself that are the most moving and soulful. Salvador’s final days with the elderly Jacinta (Julieta Serrano) pack a particular punch as his mother brusquely informs him that, “you weren’t a good son,” yet the scenes depict a peaceful resolution and an affectionate farewell. Perhaps the most affecting is the tender soothing of an old wound with a former lover (Leonardo Sbaraglia); a wonderful scene that bursts with decades of things left unsaid and with the relief of reconciliation.

Banderas carves through the inherent solipsism and self-indulgence that could have scuppered the film. Though Mallo could be seen as (and may actually be) ridiculous, there’s a natural leonine dignity about the actor, particularly in his late middle age. His performance is dialled-down and melancholy like he’s slowly imploding as his spine contracts like a fist. Despite his many ailments, it becomes clear it’s the nostalgia that hurts the most.

Whether Pain and Glory is a true reflection of Pedro Almodóvar the man as he reaches the milestone age of 70 is up for debate. There’s a Bergman-esque reveal that suggests he’s not ready to mothball his showman’s outfit just yet, but 40 years into his career this is a film that feels like a summation of what has gone before. It’s the filmmaker not just reassessing his own legacy, but acting as the curator of his legend. There are some longueurs that wallow in autobiographical indulgence, but for the most part, this is top-level Almodóvar.

@Filmhouse, Edinburgh from Fri 23 Aug 2019