Nov 27th, 2017, 09:25 AM

Retrospective: Pedro Almodóvar

By Alice Preat
Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons/Gorubdebesanez
A look at the renowned director and writer's life and filmography.

The acclaimed Spanish filmmaker, Pedro Almodóvar, said to be the next Luis Buñuel, is legendary in the film industry, but still foreign to a lot of audiences. Firstly being a Spanish filmmaker, but also because his work is not quite as mainstream as, say, Hollywood. The writer/director grew up in the impoverished region of Spain called La Mancha and moved to Madrid on his own at 18 years old. Unfortunately—or perhaps, fortunately—the film school he wanted to attend had just been closed under Franco’s government, which pushed him to start teaching himself cinema while writing in the dark hours of the night. Soon after (the late 70s, early 80s), Almodóvar became known within the “counter-culture” or “cultural renaissance” movement, which was a response to Franco’s regime. He had his first feature film screened to the public in 1980, but it wasn’t until later that he became a global phenomenon.


Pedro Almodóvar and Penélope Cruz. Image credit: Flickr/jlmaral

Filmography

Almodovar has an impressive body of work, with some films more successful than others. He has received many awards and nominations, a notable one being his Academy Award for Best Writing, Original Screenplay for the movie Talk to Her (2002). His career began with short films such as Salomé (1978), but he quickly went on to do feature films, first with Pepi, Luci & Bom (1980), and followed by What Have I Done To Deserve This? (1984), a comedy-drama that tells the story of female frustrations in an homage to Italian neo-realism, starring Carmen Maura. Then, Matador (1986), a thriller starring Antonio Banderas about a young and troubled toreador in training who attempts to rape a neighbor, but instantly regrets and turns himself into the police. He then proceeds to confess to a bunch of crimes he did not commit.

Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, starring Carmen Maura and Antonio Banderas, discusses the concept of "nervous breakdowns" or "hysteria," with the female experience as the focal point. The film sets off with a direct reference to Jean Cocteau's La Voix Humaine (1930), a woman desperately trying to avoid getting dumped in a series of distressed voicemails, but the plot quickly thickens. In Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! (1990), acclaimed by Spanish audiences and critics but received with controversy in the U.S, Almodóvar explores the romantic comedy genre while maintaining the "unexpected" element in his work, with a story of a psychiatrist kidnapping a porn actress. The film was what sparked the implementation of a new rating category (NC-17) in the U.S for films of graphic nature. Next, High Heels (1991), a story about rivalry and a tense relationship between a mother and a daughter, was poorly received in Spain due to its melodramatic tone, but acclaimed in France, where it won a Cesar award for Best Foreign Film, and the US.

A few years later, Almodóvar came out with the infamous All About My Mother (1999), the story of a mother who loses her son in an accident and goes on to track down his now transgender father. The film won him the award for Best Director at the Cannes Film Festival in 1999. Following this, pretty much every picture of his was a success. Talk to Her (2002), the story of two men and their more or less strange relationships, got nominated for two Academy Awards: Best Picture and Best Original Writing. Bad Education (2004), a story inspired by his childhood about a boarding school run by priests, was nominated for a BAFTA Award for Best Foreign Film. Also, other successes were Volver (2006), a family drama/ghost story set in Almodóvar's native La Mancha starring Pénelope Cruz, Broken Embraces (2009), which was nominated for multiple awards worldwide, and The Skin I Live In (2011), the director's first attempt at psychological horror. Finally, his most recent film Julieta (2016), based on novels by Alice Munro, discusses the complexities and hardships of mother-daughter relationships. It was nominated for a BAFTA for Best Foreign Film this year. 

Pedro Almodovar interview (1994)



Style & Muses

Though his approach and style have evolved with time, Almodóvar does have distinct trademarks: he is known to make movies that speak about the reality of women, their experiences, points of view, parent-child relationships, and also LGBTQ issues. He always takes a slightly provocative and outside the box type approach, using strong symbolism, metaphorical techniques and references to art. Also, Almodóvar is quite fond of the color red (see video below). Several muses have been at the center stage of his films—although he doesn’t like to refer to them as such—throughout the different time periods of his filmmaking career.

In the first half of his career, the director was particularly fond of Carmen Maura, who is said to be his “numero uno” since he cast her in his very first feature film Pepi, Luci, Bom (1980). Marisa Paredes, who worked on four of his films, and Chus Lampreave, who played in nine of his films, have been important figures in his career. There is also, of course, Penelope Cruz, who has been in a "cinematic romance" with Almódovar for the last 17 years, as he has so nicely coined it himself. In regards to men, Javier Cámara, for instance, and internationally renowned Antonio Banderas, are noteworthy male muses of his. The director has said that he often has specific actors in mind when writing characters, and likes to build true rapport and relationship with his "muses." 

Achievements & the Public Eye

International recognition aside, Almodóvar has received tokens for his success elsewhere: the filmmaker earned a doctoral degree from Harvard for his contribution to the arts in 2009 and was made Foreign Honorary Member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 2011. After having been a member of the jury at Cannes Festival in 1992, the Festival made him Jury President at Cannes in 2017. Almodóvar has been relatively private despite his presence in the public eye, except his rallying against the Iraqi war in the early 2000s, and his very vocal opinions on pedophilia following the release of his film Bad Education in 2004. On a grimmer note, his name appeared on the Panama Papers leak of 2016, a week before the release of his latest film, Julieta. Augustin, Pedro's brother, with whom he started the El Deseo production company, has stated that he is the one in charge of finances and that his brother was in no way to blame for the scandal. 


International Film Festival in Guadalajara. Image credit: Wikimedia Commons/Festival Internacional de Cine en Guadalajara

If not for his acclaimed work, his films are worth seeing for their authentic quality. He discusses and explores critical social issues such as feminism or LGBTQ through often dramatic or tragic storylines, yet still manages to find humor in the simplicity and absurdity that is life. His films might leave you laughing, teary-eyed, reflective, introspective, or entertained, but what's sure, they'll affect.