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The Films of Pedro Almodovar

Wed 11 Oct 2006 In: Movies

Fele Martinez and Gael Garcia Bernal in Bad Education (2004) Not unexpectedly, Spain wants to forget its four decades of Franco era fascist austerity and insularity, and represent itself as a modern nation. Almodovar's work thus fills a market niche for specialty cinema venues and distributors, which has crossover value, appealing to LGBT and straight female audiences alike. Almodovar's preferred genre is melodrama. During the Franco era, the dictator's draconian censorship banned any discussion of sex work, homosexuality, adultery, abortion, drug abuse and other 'abusive spectacles.' Shortly after his death, these ridiculous strictures were lifted, much to the displeasure of the Catholic far right. For a young novice gay film director, the provocation was obvious, like an ornately embroidered red cape to a matador's bull. Labyrinth of Passion (1982) explored the life and loves of the bisexual Riza, son to the exiled Emperor of Tiran, and Sexilia, a female rock star, as well as porn icon Patty Diphusa. Antonio Banderas made his first appearance in this work, and was to frequently appear in subsequent Almodovar pieces until his Hollywood discovery intervened. This work was made on a shoestring, but exuded improvised glamour, much like the work of our own Peter Wells. Labyrinth proved to be a modest hit, and recouped its costs. Dark Habits (1988) was the tale of a drug-addled singer, Yolanda, who sought sanctuary from a vengeful underworld drug baron in a convent. However, this convent is closer to the Italian nunsploitation thriller Killer Nun (1978) than Patricia Bartlett. Mother Superior is a lesbian drug addict; Sister Manure is a reformed murderess but hooked on LSD. Sister Rat writes sleazy bodice ripper erotic fiction and Sister Snake is an avant-garde fashion designer. Mother Superior falls for Yolanda, who uses her while cloistered in the convent, but the older nun emerges as a not unsympathetic character. What Have I Done to Deserve This (1984) dealt with the hapless plight of Gloria, a cleaning woman, who lives in a working-class flat with her taxi driver husband Antonio, and their two sons, Toni the drug pusher, and Miguel, who is gay. One day, Antonio picks up Lucas, a writer, establishing a tangential Berlin subplot which circles back to Madrid. Gloria accidentally kills Antonio, but is saved from arrest by an infatuated inspector, while Toni and her mother in law leave for the country, but Miguel stays with his mother as the man of the house (even though twelve). Matador (1986) and Law of Desire (1987) marked Almodovar's turn toward darker melodrama. Both involved killers, within the respective contexts of straight and gay relationships. In the latter, Pablo is a film director, breaking up with Juan, but also having slept with Antonio (Banderas). A triangle emerges, and Antonio disposes of Juan. Pablo's sister Tina used to be his brother until she underwent gender reassignment, and had a history of clergy paedophilia to overcome. Pepci is one of several Women on the Edge of a Nervous Breakdown (1988). Like Gloria, she has to deal with a conniving husband, his murderous ex-wife and a hitherto unknown stepson, as well as Candela, a female friend. It all ends happily, with Pepci rediscovering her inner strength, and booting out her ex- husband when offered a chance at reconciliation. As with Law of Desire, High Heels (1991) is about a triangle. In this case, it deals with Becky, a faded star, and Rebeca, her newsreader daughter. Manuel, Rebeca's husband, begins an affair with Becky. Femme Letal (a drag queen) has idolised Becky from afar, and performs homages to her, and is bisexual. Rebeca has a relationship with him and becomes pregnant, while shooting Manuel once she discovers his infidelity. Rebeca discovers that Letal is actually Dominguez, an undercover cop. Becky reveals that she is dying, and sacrifices her reputation for her daughter's happiness. Rebecca is devastated at her mother's death, her estrangement overcome. When Paul Julian Smith wrote his initial guide to Almodovar's work in the early nineties, he concluded that the Spanish director had revolutionised his national cinema over the last two decades, but remained undervalued in his homeland, despite his box-office appeal. However, precisely because of that, El Deseo (Desire Ltd), his production company has flourished. Kika (1993) centres on another romantic triangle, a not uncommon theme in his work. Kika is an amoral beautician, in love with both Ramon, a photographer, and Nick, his American stepfather. After some years out of the country, Nick visits Ramon and Kika, who have become a couple, which arouses Nick's jealousy. However, Kika was previously involved with Nick, and renews their relationship. In a sideplot, Kika's brother Paul breaks out of prison and rapes her. This leads to the end of Kika and Ramon's relationship, especially given that Ramon filmed it for reality television with the connivance of Andreas, his former therapist. Ramon begins to suspect Nick's involvement in the murder of his mother, and kills him in a shoot out, which strains his own fragile heart, and he collapses. Following his ambulance on the way to hospital, Kika's car breaks down, and she accompanies a handsome male stranger to a party to which he is en route. The outfits were especially fabulous in this one. The Flower of My Secret (1995) and Live Flesh (1997) also involved heterosexual triangles. In The Flower, Leo is both a successful novelist and author of trashy bodice-ripper romantic fiction for women, whose husband Paco was unfaithful to her during service in Bosnia with her therapist, Betty. In despair, Leo tries to kill herself, but is saved by Angel, a male journalist who enables her to leave Madrid for a new life outside the urban morass that proved so painful to her. Live Flesh (1997) also focused on two triangles, involving Victor, Elena, and Sancho and David, two policemen, as well as Sancho's abused wife, Clara. Sancho shoots David, jealous of his professional success and frames Victor for the murder. On release, he finds out that Elena and David are a couple, and is determined to avenge himself on them both. However, he also becomes involved with Clara, who confesses the truth about the shoot out to him. Sancho and Clara kill each other in another shoot out, leaving Elena and Victor to pick up the pieces. With All About My Mother (1999), Almodovar won an Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film, breaking into the international 'big time.' Returning to the arena of LGBT sexual politics, it is the story of Manuela, a solo mother, who loses her son Esteban to a tragic car accident. She travels back to Barcelona, city of her birth, to try to find his father, also named Esteban, but Esteban had gender reassignment surgery some years ago, and was named Lola, until he recently developed full-blown HIV/AIDS. Bisexual, Lola/Esteban had unprotected sex with Rosa, a nun and social worker, who is pregnant with his son- and HIV+. Unable to work as a transplant co-ordinator, Manuela takes a job as companion to Huma, a talented lesbian actress who has a relationship with a drug addict. Manuela blossoms as an actress herself, but relinquishes that role to care for Rosa, whose pregnancy is proving difficult. Sadly, Rosa dies in childbirth, and Manuela adopts her son, who seroconverts to HIV- status. At film's end, his name is revealed as Esteban. Talk to Her (2002) dealt with two parallel heterosexual relationships, tracing the lives and relationships of Benigno and Marco, two men who meet at a hospital, waiting for their female lovers to awaken from comas. But there are dark questions about Benigno, who may have raped his pregnant ward, Alicia. Benigno is arrested, killing himself in prison, as Alicia recovers consciousness after childbirth. Marco is relieved when Lydia, a gored matador, regains consciousness, until she reveals that she's leaving him for another man. As with All About My Mother, it garnered critical acclaim, and won a Golden Globe for Best Foreign Language Film, while also receiving an Oscar for Best Direct Screenplay Script for Almodovar and his collaborators. Bad Education (2004) handled the subject of clergy paedophilia, dealing with Enrique, who had a gay relationship with Ignacio, a fellow boarding school student. Both young men were sexually abused by paedophile Father Manolo, which led Ignacio to develop a drug habit. Ignacio apparently re-enters Enrique's life, but it is not Ignacio, but his brother, Juan, who is also gay. Enrique and Juan initiate a relationship of their own, but then discovers that Father Manolo and Juan had a relationship and Juan killed Ignacio through tainting his brother's heroin. As he leaves, Juan hands Enrique Ignacio's final letter. Finally, Volver (2006) will be released in the United States in November this year. It's about the issue of mother-daughter relationships and male interference within those bonds, and to avoid spoiling the experience, I'll refrain from any further plot disclosures. At Cannes this year, it received awards for Best Screenplay and Actresses for the ensemble female cast. What does Almodovar's success reveal about contemporary Spain? During Franco's forty-year dictatorship, lesbians, gay men and transpeople were persecuted under the Vagrancy Act 1954 which criminalised all homosexuality. It was abused to harrass gay political prisoners, while there were also 'special prisons' where involuntary electroconvulsive therapy was administered. Reparations for that torture are still a thorny issue for the Spanish LGBT movement. After Franco's death, Spain threw off his conservative Catholic austerity, decriminalising male homosexuality in 1972. In 2005, it legalised same sex marriage and reformed adoption legislation, enabling LGBT couples to adopt. Almodovar's growing popularity and prolific output both demonstrate what the Iberian peninsula has become, and for the better. Almodovar's work is widely available in most metropolitan specialty video stores. Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, What Have I Done To Deserve This, and Dark Habits have just been re-released on DVD. Recommended reading: Paul Julian Smith: Desire Unlimited: The Cinema of Pedro Almodovar: London: Verso: 1994. Marcus Alinson: Spanish Labyrinth: The Films of Pedro Almodovar: London: IB Tauris: 2001 Craig Young - 11th October 2006    

Credit: Craig Young

First published: Wednesday, 11th October 2006 - 12:00pm

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