In Pain and Glory, Pedro Almodóvar decides to send himself up – or does he?

Graeme Virtue finds the Spanish maestro's latest film to be as compelling and curious as Almodóvar himself

By this stage in his prolific career, Pedro Almodóvar is essentially a brand. The Spanish writer and director makes films with hearts the size of hot air balloons: exuberant tales often set in heightened realities that can be overwhelming in the best way. Even when steering into melodrama or farce, he seems to embrace everything about life, plunging headlong into sensation and emotionalism. Watching an Almodóvar movie is to not-so-secretly wish you saw the world through those voracious eyes, could somehow tap into his muy picante mojo.

But maybe being Almodóvar isn’t as much fun as it sounds. His latest, Pain and Glory, stars Antonio Banderas as Salvador Mallo, a widely adored veteran Spanish film-maker. From the outset, Banderas’s silvery beard and frizzed-up hair invite parallels between Salvador and Almodóvar but despite living in a beautiful Madrid apartment surrounded by exquisite furniture and covetable art, this fictional auteur is burdened by pain, both physical and psychological.

Mallo is in such a deep existential funk that instead of pursing new projects he prefers to drift off into memories about his hardscrabble childhood in a sun-scorched town near Valencia. In these flashbacks, his hard-working but exasperated mother (Penélope Cruz) badgers the skinny young Mallo into improving his prospects through education.

In the present-day, Mallo is being pursued by a prestigious arthouse cinema preparing to revive Sabor, one of his overlooked 1980s films: perhaps the master would care to take part in a post-screening Q&A with the lead actor Alberto Crespo (Asier Etxeandia)? Unfortunately, Mallo and Crespo clashed so bitterly on the set of Sabor (literally “flavour”, with a saucy poster to match) they have been estranged ever since. At first, it seems like a reconciliation between these former collaborators will be the main thrust of the narrative.

Crespo is one of Pain and Glory’s greatest joys, a brash former tyro who, over the course of three decades, has gone full late-period Johnny Depp complete with louche musketeer beard and a surfeit of beaded necklaces, retro band T-shirts and skull rings. But their reunion unexpectedly sends Mallo off into yet more reveries, aided by one of Crespo’s less wholesome habits. The rest of the film unspools in a series of episodic arcs, inviting the viewer to puzzle over how the formative experiences of Mallo’s youth might have made him the despondent single gay man he is today.

Banderas is over a decade younger than Almodóvar and a quick scroll through some of his recent action movies on Netflix proves that even in his late fifties he is still a sprightly physical presence. Yet in Pain And Glory, he convincingly pours pain into every step. Early on, there is an extended laundry list of Mallo’s various physical complaints, from perpetual backache to alarming throat blockages, and the patient rhythms of his pain management give the movie some genuine weight. Almodóvar’s visual palette – particularly in that incredible apartment – still has an impressive, technicolour pop but overall the tone is mostly measured, even melancholic.

(The only thing that goes up to 11 is the number of prescribed pills Salvador is supposed to take every day.) But even if Pain And Glory lacks some of the loop-de-loop intensity of Almodóvar in full flight, it is still a deeply enjoyable experience.The biographies of the actual film-maker and his handsome screen double may not sync up completely but it feels personal and genuinely heartfelt. And unlike most veteran directors – who have spent decades telling enormous crews of people what to do – Almodóvar seems happy to poke fun at artistic vanity and auteur angst.

Pain and Glory is in cinemas from August 23