When a writer-director makes a movie about a writer-director, you assume it's going to be at least a little autobiographical. When that writer-director is Pedro Almodóvar, who has put bits and pieces of himself into a good deal of his 21 previous movies, the question is front and center: Is Pain And Glory's Salvador Mallo (Antonio Banderas), based on Almodóvar himself?
The answer is as nonlinear as an Almodóvar movie: Yes and also no.
Here are the most important similarities between Almodóvar and his character: They both grew up in small towns, discovered their sexual orientation early in life, and went on to become great directors.
Almodóvar was born in a small town in the middle of Spain in 1949, and grew up during the oppressive rein of dictator Francisco Franco. His family struggled financially and sent Almodovar off to a Catholic boarding school, hoping he would become a priest. He always loved movies, though, and even when the Franco regime closed its film institute, he taught himself how to make movies on a hand-held Super-8 camera.
After Franco's death in 1975, Madrid exploded with counterculture artists and young people eager to explore the freedom they'd been denied during their country's dark period. Almodóvar's early films (Pepi, Luci, Bom; The Labyrinth of Passion) were wild, campy celebrations of sexuality and freedom. He constantly flaunted taboos, particularly when it came to homosexuality, and was ahead of his time in his treatment of transgender characters.
Many of his films throughout his career have been notable for his great female protagonists, from 1988's Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown through 2016's Julieta. Mothers, in particular, are a frequent focus of his.
The relationship between Mallo and his mother is similar to Almodovar's with his, who died in 1999.
"The story of my mother giving specific instructions about being prepared after death came directly from my life, but it happened to my sister," he told the L.A. Times in the same interview. "I stole many memories from my brother and sisters."
Critics have been heaping praise on Pain And Glory since its Cannes premiere in May. That brings us to the most glaring departure from the character of Salvador Mallo, who fears he can no longer make movies. Though one reason behind his self-doubt is his constant back pain, from which the real-life director also suffers.
Banderas wears some of his director's clothing in the movie, and the apartment in which his character lives is almost an exact replica of Almodóvar's Madrid home, down to the artwork. There is also a parallel in the fact that Mallo reunites with a favorite actor after a decades-long feud. Almodóvar and Banderas were great friends and collaborators in the '80s, but stopped working together when Banderas became a huge Hollywood star until 2011's The Skin I Live In.
There are also things Almodóvar made up, because he knows how to craft a good story. He never lived in the caves of Valencia as a child, for instance, nor has he experimented with heroin as an adult.
"You cannot think that it is exactly my life, because it is not literally my life, but the emotions and the different blocks of the movie represent places and feelings that I [experienced] in my life," Almodóvar told Variety. Even so, he's sure people will assume that everything in the movie is true, and that's okay, too. "It's a delicate mixture, but it's part of the adventure."