Feature photo by Jean-Baptiste Mondino for The New York Times
The comparison has been made before. After all, Pedro Almódovar was born in the historic district of Castille-La Mancha. Much like the historic novel by Cervantes, Don Quixote, the legacy of Pedro Almódovar shall transcend the passage of time. In many ways, his films are not dissimilar to the title character of that famed story. Equal parts excessively romantic, impractical and impulsive. The quixotic sensibilities present in the characters, designs, plots and colors of his films are masterful. In his films not only exist entertainment but commentary that many times, the viewer for whatever reason, cannot fully communicate in his or her own real world. To live vicariously through characters in the Almódovarian universe is a step in the direction towards liberation for many different types of minorities and fringe groups. I, as a Mexican American, found it to be of great solace in the formative years of my existence to view a portrayal of Gay culture that isn’t deviant, immoral-nor unsuccessful.
He is an advocate for LGBT characters in film. A long time coming in Spanish cinema, the homosexual portrayal was usually relegated to silly faggot characters who were simple and had no other purpose to serve than to be dominated at the end of the film. He and many other filmmakers of the time during the transition to democracy in Spain after Francisco Franco known as la movida madrileña, brought a more sympathetic and complex view of homosexuality. However, his female narrative is as important, showing the power and strength of the Spanish woman.
In the beginning his was more of a youthful rebellion, harking more of the hedonism of the cultural wave as a whole, not so much catering to specific politics. The punk sensibility of this time in films such as Pepi, Luci, Bom… (1980), Labyrinth of Passion (1982) and Dark Habits (1983), was the political statement made, and a culture of drugs and nightlife emerged as Spain rushed to keep up with the rest of the world. An anecdote that is completely telling of the level of rapidity that existed during this time of social progress was that pornography, often foreign, had been legalized in 1976 yet in ten years time was seen as too tame and often outsold by domestic magazines. The role of women also changed much quicker than anyone ever expected. Though many observers figured that this would last an incredibly long time, a landmark decision to not require a female rape victim gave evidence of a “heroic struggle” to validate her accusation that came in 1987-tantamount to women being viewed as people and not only as mothers and wives.
Eventually, his grasp became less screwball comedy, more dark commentary that was still funny. What Have I Done to Deserve This? (1984) was his first international distribution. The film is an homage to Italian Neorealism and pokes fun at extremely serious topics such as pedophilia, prostitution, domestic abuse and poverty in a Madrilenian apartment complex. This film marks the second period in his filmmaking which still retains the same cinematography as his first three films but with a more realistic plot. Matador (1986), was his first psychological thriller with frequent collaborator Antonio Banderas. His next film, his sixth, marks the end of this period in his filmmaking. Law of Desire (1987) is the epitome of that early Almódovar, still trying to find his niche. The story of a gay director who is in love with an unattainable man, presumably younger than he is. He meets Antonio Banderas at a film premiere and the latter becomes dangerously possesive. His transexual sister, played by Carmen Maura (who incidentaly is in all of the films mentioned previously, excluding Labyrinth) lives with the daughter of a frenemy who is in Tokyo for business, and in all of this there is a murder to solve, only the director knows who did it, but he’s been afflicted with amnesia. That last bit might put you off a bit but it is a very real portrayal of the dynamic of homosexual relationships. This marks the beginning of his quest to put his characters in situations where, by the power of the family and community they’ve created, must find a way to come back from it together. This last film was the first to receive international recognition, having won the first Teddy Award at the 1987 Berlin International Film Festival.
The third period in his filmmaking was when he really broke through on the international scene with a little Oscar nominated film (soon to be turned into Broadway musical), Women on the verge… (1988). Everything that has to be said about this film has been said, so I shall move on to the near miss Tie me up! Tie me down! (1989) which garnered a bit of backlash, with many fearing he lost his way. A former pornographic actress turned straight, who was also a heroin addict is kidnapped by Banderas and develops Stockholm Syndrome. This is coincidentally Banderas’ final appearance so far. The third movie in this time of praise and bruise is High Heels (1991), which is actually a pretty good movie, if not heavy on the Autumn Sonata references, the Chanel and Armani wardrobe and Miguel Bosé. The final movie of this period is Kika (1993) which has a less-than-hilarious rape scene, however, it has its moments which I think in time, will be much more appreciated than when it first came out.
The fourth period is when he finally found his voice with the classics The Flower of my Secret (1995), Live Flesh (1997) and All About my Mother (1999) that finally won his Oscar, ten years after he had been first nominated. These three movies speak for themselves. I suggest you Netflix them immediately or click on the Amazon links I’ve supplied.
This fifth period which we presently find ourselves in is a period where his maturity not only as a director but as a man is more than present. He won his second Academy Award, this time for Best Original Screenplay for Talk to Her, (2002). Bad Education (2004) garnered a now redundant amount of praise and featured strong commentary about pedophilia cases in the catholic church. His powerhouse Volver (2006) which set the way for Penélope Cruz to win her Oscar two years later, is seen as his ultimate portrayal of working class Madrilenian women, akin to What Have I Done…? and the triumphant return of Carmen Maura, who had a falling out after Women. Broken Embraces (2009) I have surprisingly yet to see, but I’m sure I shall agree.
You must understand, these movies for me are more than simple 90 minute to 2 hour long sources of entertainment. They are the visions of a man who truly understands what it means to be a gay man in a traditionally conservative country or culture. His bravery, his epic and his iconoclasty will, throughout the ages be regarded as something of irrevocable genius, to be shared by generations of insecure and frightened homosexual youth, for as long as there is love.