Pedro Almodovar - Gay Enfant Terrible of the European Film
“Of all the actresses I have ever worked with, Penelope is the only one that made me feel yearning, more vital than the sensuality of making films. It is perfectly normal for a director to share a rich emotional world with his actress; in this world, there is everything except sex. Penelope is different; she made me feel real sexual desire”. In 2006, when they worked on the great crime comedy Volver, Pedro Almodovar, the gay enfant terrible of European film, described his relationship with his diva, Penelope Cruz, in the unscrupulously open manner characteristic of him. This statement is completely unacceptable for the politically correct Hollywood, but then again Almodovar never answered the call of the puritanical Hollywood convention. Even so, he fell in love with moving pictures as a little boy when he saw The Cat on Hot Tin Roof (1958) and later gave permission to the producers of the famous TV series Grey’s Anatomy to create a pilot episode based on his first European and international success Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown (1988).
Pedro Almodovar, the most famous Spanish director after Luis Bunuel, and a reformer of Spanish cinema, was born in the small town of Calzada de Calatrava, in the poor Spanish province of La Mancha. This unbelievably versatile artist – director, screenwriter, actor and composer – received his education from Franciscan and Salesian monks. A Catholic upbringing influenced his strong criticism of the Church and in his films, he often ridiculed this important Spanish institution. In his teenage years, after he saw Richard Brooks’ Cat on A Hot Tin Roof, based on Tennessee Williams’ famous play, as stated in his biography, he discovered his great passion for film. Since then he has been involved with film in one way or another, by watching and studying contemporary and old films, and finally integrating his love of films into his own opus. “Cinema became my true education; I have learned much more from films than in school and from priests,” said the director in an interview. As a sixteen-year-old boy, against his parent’s will, alone and without a dime but with a strong will to make films, he moved to Madrid. In the late 1960s, in the early days of his life in the Spanish metropolis, he survived by selling used goods at the El Rastro flea market. In the 1960s, in spite of being in the grip of a dictatorship, Madrid was a true oasis of freedom and culture for a provincial teenager. Almodovar never studied film directing, not only because he could not afford it, but also because in the early 1970s Franco ordered the closure of all film schools. Instead of going to college, Almodovar got a job at the Spanish telecom company Telefonica, where he worked as an administrator for twelve years. From his savings, he managed to buy a Super 8 camera and from 1972 to 1978 used it to make short films with friends. Premieres of his early films, made with the Super 8 camera, slowly became legendary events of the growing Spanish counter cultural scene. Over several years, Almodovar became the star of La Movida, a pop cultural movement of the late 1970s in Madrid. In 1987, Pedro and his older brother Agustin Almodovar founded the production house El Deseo S. A., and ever since then his brother has produced all of his films.
In his Madrid years, Almodovar discovered life and met many people, among them his lively future film characters, polished his story telling and got acquainted with the sorrows of the middle class hunger for consumerism that was getting stronger by the day. His creativity is abundant, which is why everyday situations are an interesting inspiration. Almodovar lived an exciting double life: by day, he was a clerk and by night he partied, acted in the Los Gollardos independent theatre group and made super 8 films. He wrote for several alternative magazines such as Star and Vibora and was a member of the punk rock band Almodovar and MacNamara. He also published a short novel, porno photo novellas and many articles that hugely influenced his approach to film. His super 8 films were in fact his “academy” and a period of patient study. Directors such as Billy Wilder, George Cukor, Douglas Sirk, Alfred Hitchcock, Luis Bunuel, Blake Edwards, Ingmar Bergman, John Waters, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Luis Garcia Berlanga and the neorealist Marco Ferreri heavily influenced his opus.
Almodovar’s first film made on 16mm film tape, Salome, was also his first contact with the world of professional film. It starred Carmen Maura and Felix Rotaeta who encouraged him to make his next film and helped him raise the money for it. Therefore, he made the charming sex satire Pepi, Luci, Bom y otras chicas del monton (1980) – in his filmographies often mentioned as his first feature film, it was later transferred to 35 mm for public screening. After this introductory film, he made many provocative films characterized by a strong authorial vision with post-modernist emphases on sex, violence and religion. Often shocking, sometimes controversial and bizarre, as befits the Spanish art tradition, Almodovar’s film world re-revealed Spain, which slept during Franco, to Europe and the rest of the world. We can easily compare him with Rainer Werner Fassbinder, another European film genius, a south German author who grew up in a Catholic environment in Munich. Both Fassbinder and Almodovar are extremely fruitful authors and avid film-lovers; they are in love with the Hollywood classics, especially melodramas and Douglas Sirk’s films. They are both great judges of human nature, both homosexuals and in their films they question different types of sexuality, make fun of the bourgeois and religious conventions, but never of true love.
In Dark Habits (Entre Tinieblas, 1983), a dark melodrama with elements of comedy and with an intense female cast, starring many of his later favorite actresses such as Carmen Maura, Juliera Serrano, Marisa Paredes and Chus Lampreave, Almodovar tells a story about a cabaret singer, which enables him for the first time to use popular music to convey emotions. The heroine is running away from the law and hides in a poor convent in which nuns suffer because of their diverse sins; for example the mother superior, who falls in love with the heroine, is a drug addict. The film is of course a satire of Spanish religious institutions, but also a story about people whose lives are ruled by their emotions and passion rather than reason, which later became the author’s obsession. The following year Almodovar made the film What Have I Done To Deserve This? (Qué he hecho yo para merecer esto?, 1984) inspired by dark Spanish comedies from the 1950s and early 1960s, which portrays a dysfunctional family headed by a patriarchal father and a housewife/mother who holds the whole family together at the expense of her own life and integrity.
Almodovar earned his first international acclaim with his film Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown (Mujeres al borde de un ataque de nervios, 1988), a light feminist comedy, inspired by 1950s Hollywood comedies, George Cukor’s films and later Fassbinder. Her married lover suddenly dumps the hero, Pepa, a professional film double. For two days, Pepa tries to find her lover, simultaneously learning more about her own feelings. With this film Almodovar became more strongly established as a “female” author with a special sensibility for the theme of female independence. “Women are more spectacular as dramatic characters and have a wider and more diverse spectrum of feelings than men”, explained Almodovar. His next film ¡Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! (Atame!, 1990), in which his muse Victoria Abril falls in love with her kidnapper, played by Antonio Banderas, was a big hit. Then feminists and other female groups attacked him because of alleged “sadomasochist sub-tones”. Even so, Almodovar, in general, has always been a favorite author of many marginal social groups. His film Kika (1993) is stylistically very heterogeneous: Kika is a kind girl who constantly has problems in her life. An amoral TV reporter looking to make headlines follows her. In fact, Kika is a strong critique of mass media but it was not popular with audiences or critics.
A more mature approach and a different understanding of characters is obvious in The Flower of My Secret (La flor de mi secreto, 1995) in which the director devoted himself to a detailed and positive portrayal of male characters. This film is considered the turning point in Almodovar’s opus because it deals with love and creativity, similar to in his later films All About My Mother and Talk to Her. His films become more visually impressive and stronger. In The Live Flesh (Carne tremula, 1997), based on Ruth Rendell’s novel, he deals with the problems of love, loss and suffering with different combinations of sexual orientations. The story takes place between 1970, when Franco declared state of emergency, and 1996 when Spain had fully recovered from Franco’s restrictive heritage.
Asked to explain the success of his films, Almodovar answered humbly in the manner of Hollywood classics that they must be “very entertaining”. Almodovar developed as a film author under the powerful influence of Hollywood films that portray strong female characters who move the action and are at the center of it. Moreover, he absolutely follows that tradition. At the same time, the author is very open about his homosexuality and incorporates elements of underground and gay culture into the mainstream film form. In doing so, he manages to add to it a crossover attraction and thus win the hearts of a broader audience.
In 2002, he made the complex melodrama Talk to Her (Hable con ella, 2002), the story of two comatose women. He made many people angry but also won an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay and the French Cesar for Best Non-French Film. Two years later he caused a media frenzy and inspired a conservative lynch mob with the film Bad Education (La mala educacion, 2004.). Everybody agrees that this film, which tells the story of two boys, Ignacio and Enrique, growing up in a catholic school, their encounter with love, film, sex and fear, is the closest thing to his biographical story. In it Almodovar very realistically portrays problems in his own youth and acceptance of his sexuality, as well as acceptance of homosexuality by society.
After that field trip to drama, Almodovar returned to his favorite area: the subgenre of rich melodrama with a big female cast led by Penelope Cruz. In 2006, he returned with the film Volver. He commented on the meaning of the title: “I returned to comedy. I am once again in a female universe and again in La Mancha.” Penelope Cruz, who for her role in Volver won the Golden Palm in Cannes, stars also in Almodovar’s newest film Broken Embraces (Los abrazos rotos, 2009).
Critics have been completely mesmerized by Penelope Cruz’s talent since her role in All about My Mother (1999). This film won more awards than any other Spanish film; among others the Golden Palm in Cannes, an Oscar and a Golden Globe for Best Foreign Film, the French Cesara for Best Foreign Film, a Goya for the greatest Spanish film award in several categories, and many others. Almodovar wrote the part of the nun with a golden heart, (who gets pregnant by a transvestite drug addicted male prostitute, gets AIDS, gives birth to her child and then dies), especially for Penelope. Even though the character’s concept is very postmodern and typical for Almodovar, Sister Maria Rosa is primarily a catholic creation, a mixture of the Virgin Mary and Mary Magdalene. She connects many points in the author’s opus, who with all his particularities also nurtures a very Mediterranean attitude toward mothers and motherhood, even though he moved the role of mother from a traditional family to a new community of different sexual orientations.
Broken Embraces was shown in Cannes last year with great success. Harry Caine, the hero of the film, is a blind writer who used to be a film director known under his real name, Mateo Blanco. He made his last film ten years ago when he met the fatal Lena, played by Penelope Cruz, who in the film, as one of the internet reviewers humorously noted, has more identities than Jason Bourne.
A London Sunday Times critic reviewed Broken Embraces as an introspective, semi-autobiographical story with several story lines, fragmented film time and twists. Even though Broken Embraces lack the emotional deadliness of All about My Mother or the laughter of Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, this is the most complex film in the director’s opus; a work that only a genius could have come up with. However, we owe the baroque profusion of themes, mastery of form, humor and warmth of his films not just to the beautiful talent of this author but also to his unrelenting faith in authentic human emotion that ties all sexual minorities with “ordinary” people, which this brave author never concealed with cynicism or bitterness. (Alemka Linsinski)