- Almodovar, Pedro
- (1949- )If there is a continuous line in Almodóvar's long career as a filmmaker, it is the need to express an indomitably independent outlook and a refusal to compromise on his vision. This impulse has paid off in a series of very idiosyncratic stories and an engaging gallery of off-beat characters, but it has been a long and difficult road—along with huge international popularity, he is often openly dismissed in his native land. Spanish critics (barely) respect Almodóvar's success, but cannot forgive him for his individualistic films, so removed from the realist orthodoxies prevalent in Spanish film.Almodóvar was born in Calzada de Calatrava, a small town in La Mancha. Early reports, carefully disseminated, portray teenager Pedro as a born storyteller who listened to older women's gossip and tales and wrote letters for them. He studied in a religious school. He was never nostalgic about this period (traces of those years resurfaced in his 2004 film La mala educación / Bad Education). During his early years, he developed both a fascination and dissatisfaction for rural Spain that frequently recurs in his work. That the apparent contradiction is not presented as paradoxical within the narratives is probably key to understanding the relationship between the director and his culture: Almodóvar loves village life as a spectator, but cannot stand being immersed in its rituals.Almodóvar left for Madrid in 1969 and was thoroughly impressed and inspired by the big city and its people. In the early 1970s, he discovered David Bowie, glam rock, and the American artistic underground: stylistically, his early work partakes of Warhol as well as John Waters and the Kuchar brothers. As the period of political change known as The Transition approached, he discovered the fun and variety of night-life, as wells as its off-beat denizens. He found a steady job with the Spanish National Telephone Company (Telefónica), but never cared much about his career there, preferring to shoot short narrative fictions with his Super-8 camera. These were mostly parodies of biblical movies (he calls this his "Cecil B. De Mille phase"), and experimental films that he showed in various underground Madrid night spots, aiming to impress potential investors; to these he added live narration, dialogue, and sound effects. The storyteller and performer are both at the heart of his development as a film director: during the mid-1970s he tried writing, acting, and a career as a singer before settling into directing.After several years of experimentation, Almodóvar embarked on his first feature, Pepi, Luci Bom y otras chicas del montón (Pepi, Luci, Bom, 1980). This was a fragmentary ensemble narrative, brimming with colorful characters (inspired by the stories he heard from acquaintances) often played by friends, in which one can already see some of the main themes of his work: a focus on the lives and rituals of women, a strong sense of style, a personal mythology of pop cultural references and certain Hollywood genres (melodrama, musical, screwball comedy), a certain taste in dress and decoration rooted in punk, and a cheeky sense of humor. The film became an event with younger "modern" audiences and was praised by a small contingent of critics who enthused about its "freshness" and spontaneity.His second film, Laberinto de pasiones / Labyrinth of Passions (1982), was even more "Almodovarian." He repeated the formula (a network narrative, a gallery of odd types immersed in excessively convoluted plots, sexual omnivorousness, Madrid as a playground, tongue-in-cheek treatment of sex), but the result was more compact. He still managed on a shoestring budget, asking loans from friends but bravely resisting the siren call of the industry to pursue intensely personal narratives. By this time, his projects were becoming more ambitious, his plots more articulate, and he was working with more accomplished collaborators.In this sense, the evolution of his cinematic style over the next six years is remarkable. Each of the ensuing films (Entre tinieblas /Dark Habits, 1983; ¿¿Qué he hecho yo para merecer esto!! / What Have I Done to Deserve This? 1984; Matador, 1986; La ley del deseo /Law of Desire, 1987) was more accomplished than the preceding. On the other hand, dependence on external producers became a necessity, and he was began to believe that his creative instincts were compromised to get funding. After financial problems with Matador, he set up with his brother Agustín his own production company, El Deseo S.A. (which translates as "Desire," a key thematic element of his films of that period).Given the distinctiveness of his humor, it is interesting to remark that Mujeres al borde de un ataque de nervios / Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown (1988), the first film produced fully under the new company, is his only outright comedy in years (and the last to date). Carmen Maura, who had appeared in most of his features until then (giving a particularly strong performance in ¿Quéhe hecho yo para merecer esto!!), was again the protagonist, although at this point their professional relationship soured. The film was a spectacular success in Spain, cementing his international reputation and winning many awards and even a foreign-language Academy Award nomination.Almodóvar's films of the 1990s experimented with mixing genres, exploring the conventions of the thriller (Kika 1993; Carne trémula / Live Flesh, 1997), the melodrama (La flor de mi secreto /Flower of my Secret, 1995), or both (Tacones lejanos / High Heels). They all boast a wealth of distinctive performances by actresses like Victoria Abril, Marisa Paredes, or Verónica Forqué. This was a decade of widespread international recognition, but backlash in Spain: his films, it was said, were becoming repetitive, losing the by-now cliché "freshness." To many film critics, Almodovar was taking himself more seriously than he deserved; to others, frivolity was always too apparent. He reached a critical low point with Kika, and neither La flor de mi secreto nor Carne trémula were particularly well received in Spain.Still, in 1999, Almodóvar shot what many, even in his home country, still consider to be his most fully realized film: Todo sobre mi madre / All About My Mother. The originality or emotionalism of previous films may be better appreciated, but with this film he approached a rare perfection in the balancing of comedy and melodrama, emotion and aesthetics, originality and convention, without losing his by-now recognizable voice. With the new millennium, his films became darker, focusing on men and masculinity, rather than the central female figures in many of his previous films. He has said that the darkness in Hable con ella / Talk to Her (2002) and in La mala educación has to do with changes in his lifestyle and his outlook, and age, insisting that the well of inspiration might dry at some point. Exploring the masculine soul does not come easy for Almodóvar: Shooting La mala educación was reportedly a bitter experience, and Almodóvar has on many occasions expressed his dissatisfaction in the process, although it is one of his best films. After this experience, he returned to familiar ground with Volver (2006), a film focusing on women and family that balanced drama and comedy. Into his sixth decade and his fourth as a filmmaker, Almodóvar's reputation is still going strong and his fan base continues to grow.Los abrazos rotos (Broken Embraces), his last film to date, was released in 2009. A beautiful drama in the noir tradition, costarring Lluís Homar, Blanca Portillo, and Penélope Cruz, in which human emotions are contained but background settings and landscape are eloquent. The story is set in different periods, and features a blind film director shattered by the death of the woman he loved. Responses in Spain were generally good, but the main film critic at El País, Carlos Boyero, wrote a hostile review illustrating that Almodóvar is still judged more for what he is and how he behaves than for his cinema. It is, however, clear that Almodóvar's exceptional body of work will outlive his less-talented critics.See also Homosexuality.
Historical dictionary of Spanish cinema. Alberto Mira. 2010.