Primer is The A.V. Club’s ongoing series of beginners’ guides to pop culture’s most notable subjects: filmmakers, music styles, literary genres, and whatever else interests us—and hopefully you. This installment: Pedro Almodóvar, one of the most original and acclaimed directors working today.
The films of Pedro Almodóvar are twisty, lurid, and lustful, melodramatic but deeply empathetic, taboo-breaking but moral. There’s no such thing as a “typical” one, given the range of genres and tones he covers (often in the same title), but there are some typical ingredients that together make him one of the best and most distinctive filmmakers alive today.
Almodóvar fills his screens with bold colors and inventive camera angles, as well as cinematic references, genre touchstones, and images that serve the same function as songs in a musical, to express what cannot be said. To the extent he has a standard premise, it is this: A dark secret in the past circles out to touch all characters, ruining or saving the lives of both perpetrator and victim in ways that neither can fully grasp. Many of his characters track a Byzantine plot to a cathartic reunion, a meeting where all can be understood, if not forgiven. They seek redemption.
Spain’s most prominent filmmaker, Almodóvar probes the country’s culture and the legacy of dictator Francisco Franco. He is obsessed with the line between fantasy and reality, with shifting identities and the roles people play. (Few directors see gender as so fluid.) His films examine the extremes of sexual experience; Almodóvar has four NC-17 credits to his name, though few of his scenes would qualify as conventionally erotic. “When you put your heart and genitals into something, it’s always personal,” muses one of his many film-director characters.
Nearly all his works feature some element that’s outré, sometimes outrageously so. Some recurring visuals: a man watching large-screen surveillance of a woman he has in a form of captivity; voluptuous nudity presented clinically as doctors disinfect a body of blood; women pleasured by miniature men. Though his work could not exist as anything other than film, he draws from art forms like theater and dance, and name-checks inspirations like Bette Davis and Tennessee Williams, whose Glass Menagerie begins by offering “truth in the pleasant disguise of illusion,” a promise fulfilled by Almodóvar. As Roger Ebert described, Almodóvar “has a way of evoking sincere responses from material which, if it were revolved only slightly, would present a face of sheer irony.” Or as one of Almodóvar’s many sex-worker characters sighs, “All I have that’s real is my feelings and these pints of silicon.”
Almodóvar sprang into cinema fully formed, with a vibrancy that coiled under his Catholic upbringing and was released in the “Movida” (movement) that followed the Franco regime. In the Movida, “the explosion of personal freedom was equal to the repression we had felt” under Franco, Almodóvar told The New York Times in 2004. This is apparent in his early works, which vibrate with energy and passion, though not discipline. He was an important artist from the beginning of his career, if only for providing a voice for Spain’s marginalized groups, but he wouldn’t enter the enter the topmost echelon of directors until the ’90s, when he coupled his established themes and style with the sincerity and sympathy that exemplify his best films today.
Perhaps the first title that is really “un film de Almodóvar” (credits dropped his first name once he became a known quantity) is 1999’s All About My Mother, an operatic look at unconventional family ties. Almodóvar is cinema’s most visible acolyte of Douglas Sirk—the Hollywood director who used artifice and melodrama to probe issues mainstream films wouldn’t touch in the 1950s—and here “operatic” can be used in both its TV and stage connotations. Mother begins with the death of a young autograph hound, struck down by a car as he chases after his favorite actress (a sequence intercut with the beginning of All About Eve). The boy’s mother (Cecilia Roth, one of the many gifted performers who make up Almodóvar’s regular troupe of actors), deals with the tragedy by burrowing into her own past, a path that leads to a carnival of prostitution and a pregnant, HIV-positive nun played by Penélope Cruz.
Much of the story revolves around a character who isn’t seen until the final minutes of the film, in a form few could anticipate. It is a measure of Almodóvar’s compassion that when this character appears, despite audiences having been primed for hatred, the depiction is profoundly empathetic and understanding. After opening on a note of unbearable pain, Mother ends with an act of grace and forgiveness, making it a weepie for the ages (in tone if not content).
Mother won Almodóvar his first Oscar, for Best Foreign Film, and marked the start of an extraordinary string of films, which he followed up with 2002’s brilliant Talk To Her, another Oscar winner (for Original Screenplay, a rare victory for a foreign-language script).
Like a lot of Almodóvar films, Talk To Her is profoundly moving, despite being built on elements that sound laughable on the surface. Very simply, it concerns the friendship that develops between a writer (standing vigil over a matador in a coma) and the matador’s nurse (who is in love with a dancer, also in a coma). A story like that doesn’t call for subtlety, and none is supplied. The film opens with a curtain rising on the action, while the plot pivots on men weeping at theatrical performances. At one moment, the connection between the leads is boldly cemented with a long scene where one’s face is reflected over the other’s.
At the heart of the film is a common Almodóvar theme, an evil act committed out of love, or at least out of the best intentions from the point of view of the perpetrator. Here, that point of view is explained with a sequence of stunning audacity, a fictional silent movie that builds to a shocking visual moment that symbolizes what is happening in the main story. Describing the moment would make it sound comic, juvenile, or stupid, when in context it is haunting and heartbreaking, an incredibly risky moment even by Almodóvar’s standards, but one that attains a kind of grace. (This page contains a picture of the director on the unrealistic-but-NSFW set of that sequence.)
Without Almodóvar’s precision of tone, Talk To Her would be a laughingstock, but it probably wouldn’t be offensive. The same can’t be said of 2004’s Bad Education, a look at the Catholic Church priest sex scandal that shockingly finds empathy for all involved—prey and predator alike.
As ever, this is no straightforward tale, involving multiple time periods, people who may not be who they say, and moments where the real story and its fictionalized version seem to switch places. The film’s complex structure mirrors how victims of abuse can be shattered by their experiences, something Almodóvar literalizes in a moment when a trickle of blood tears a child apart.
Religious hypocrisy is a common enough target for the arthouse set, but where most would score easy (but deserved) points against abusive men of the cloth, Almodóvar looks deeper. “My goal as a writer is to have empathy for all my characters,” he said in the Times profile, a trait he credits to his Catholic upbringing. “I love characters who are crazy in love and will give their live to passion, even if they burn in hell.” In Almodóvar’s world, everyone get a fair hearing, especially sinners, and extending one’s empathy to those who prey on the helpless makes this one of the trickiest in Almodóvar’s catalog. Still, what’s more consistent with Catholic teachings than forgiveness for all? Despite being an atheist, Almodóvar makes a case for himself, in films like Mother and Education, as one of the most powerfully Christian filmmakers at work.
After the controversy of Bad Education, Almodóvar moved into safer waters with Volver (“To Return”) in 2006, one of his gentlest—but still very moving—titles. The film stars Penélope Cruz as a woman who flourishes after her husband attempts to rape their daughter and is murdered. (“Gentlest” is a relative term here.)
Almodóvar is one of the best directors for actresses and female characters working today, and Volver is his love story to women. Cruz in particular has never gotten a better role (she received her first Oscar nomination for this one), radiating warmth, intelligence, and vulnerability in a star turn that feels completely lived in. Impeccably constructed and written, Volver is a powerful depiction of the relationships between sisters, and between mothers and daughters.
It’s also one of Almodóvar’s best-directed films, featuring a moment that boils the essence of cinema’s appeal down to one image:
This shot is so blatant in its “kiss kiss bang bang”-ness, that the cut to it tends to elicit laughter. But consider how much weight is being pulled here, with Almodóvar drawing our attention to both the knife and Cruz’s femininity, two things that will come into play later; the color and framing strike the viewer as both effective and ingenious.
Broken Embraces, which followed Volver in 2009, is another twisty dive into the past, with a blind filmmaker grappling with how he lost the love of his life (the details of which position Godard’s Contempt as a major reference point; gleaning Almodóvar’s influences makes for a comprehensive film school). While just as lush and satisfying as his other films in this stretch, Embraces is particularly notable for its ending, which makes literal one of Almodóvar’s most potent motifs. Mother, Talk To Her, Education, and Volver all end with audiences forgiving or damning a character based on not just what we learn about them, but when we learn it in the story. In Broken Embraces, justice and salvation is meted out with the re-editing of a film. How a story is told is the story.
In Spain, Almodóvar first became known through his short films and his work in Almodóvar & McNamara, a drag-themed glam rock duo.
That’s an important part of his artistic biography, especially with respect to the Movida, but international fame came with 1988’s Women On The Verge Of A Nervous Breakdown, a film that plays like a David Zucker-directed Cassavetes picture. What begins as a dignified “women’s picture” was its main characters face crisis after crisis, soon turns into a screwball farce featuring a terrorist scare and roofied cops. While it doesn’t hold up as well as his other films, Women remains a cult favorite (and the basis for a Broadway show, surprisingly the only Almodóvar musical) and the first successful example of how, as a director, he would seek to juggle disparate tones.
This juggling wouldn’t always be successful. 2011’s The Skin I Live In features a lot of his trademarks—bizarre punishments and revenge, considerations of the lingering impact of rape, the build to a climatic reunion—but doesn’t have the resonance of his best work. Just as Volver was a ghost story of sorts, Skin is Almodóvar’s take on a mad scientist flick (with heavy nods toward the French masterpiece Eyes Without A Face)—specifically, his attempt to deepen that fantastical genre with emotion. But the film’s tone is too subdued given the sheer craziness of the “experiment” Antonio Banderas’ mad scientist performs; what should end with a punch to the gut instead inspires a jaw drop. Alternatively harrowing and entertaining, Skin is what it looks like when Almodóvar’s high-wire act stumbles.
Almodóvar’s emotional genre work is also on display in 1997’s Live Flesh, which aims to infuse a cop thriller with political and emotional undertones. While the film is entertaining, it’s difficult to take it as seriously as Almodóvar seems to want. The story concerns a criminal who is in love with the woman married to the handicapped cop who put him away, but the implications of the various relationships aren’t really probed, and neither is a prologue pointedly set in Franco’s Spain. (The cop is played by Javier Bardem, who—along with Cruz and Banderas—was largely introduced to international audiences through Almodóvar.) Although the films opens with onscreen text about reduced rights and a woman symbolically chewing through an umbilical cord, Almodóvar doesn’t seem to have much to say, despite a decent story.
The same could be said of I’m So Excited!, a 2013 film whose enjoyability compensates for much of its emptiness. The most overtly political of Almodóvar’s works—or at least the ones made in response to specific issues rather than broader comments on free expression and institutions—Excited is set in an airplane with malfunctioning landing gear, doomed to crash sooner or later. The plane is Spain, and the impending crisis the country’s precarious financial situation. Almodóvar’s main criticism is class-based: The economy class is drugged while the business class passengers (an assassin, a Ponzi schemer, a dominatrix named Ms. Take) get wasted and screw around. It isn’t exactly hard-hitting, but the flippancy is arguably a point in and of itself. Look how little anyone cares, Almodóvar seems to be saying, including himself.
Once you get past his top tier of work, some of Almodóvar’s strengths turn into weaknesses. Because so many feature rearrangements of the same ingredient—stylistic tics, genre elements, unusual sexual obsessions that turn deadly, tones pitched somewhere between farce and camp—they can feel interchangeable.
The early films are recognizably Almodóvarian, but they differ from his later work in that they offer the sense of taboo breaking for its own sake, rather than to serve a deeper purpose. His first film, Fuck Me, Fuck Me, Fuck Me, Tim (1978) offers up a blind rock star with none of the attendant insight into fame or physical limitations that characterize his later work. Pepi, Luci, Born (1980) features a lesbian punk rocker and a masochistic housewife among other elements that never cohere. High Heels (1991) has a mother and daughter sharing a lover. What Have I Done To Deserve This? (1984) features a man who forges Hitler’s letters and a telepathic girl who helps cover up a murder. Labyrinth Of Passion (1982) throws a nymphomaniac, a gay Islamic terrorist, and a member of royalty into a jar and shakes it. A young woman in Kika (1993) has an affair with a former coma patient and his stepfather, who the son claims is also a murderer. Dark Habits (1983) is set in a convent with lesbian, junkie, or tiger-raising nuns. (Almodóvar was subsequently approached to direct Sister Act, a what-if for the ages.)
And so forth. The question is, do these films offer much to modern audiences, now that the revolutionary aspects are secondhand? To a degree. One thing about Almodóvar is that he’s rarely boring, but because he approaches his material at right angles, it’s difficult to know how to respond. Someone may adore one of the films listed above but hate another for the same reasons. And several feature sexual politics that can be downright offensive from today’s standpoint. One film starts with a kidnapping and ends with kidnapper and hostage in love. Another has an anti-Kafkaesque subplot where a handsome man commits a rape and is unable to get punished. (“Some women are lucky,” a policewoman muses about the victim.)
Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!, the hostage film, makes essentially no effort at developing the romance that eventually transpires between the two leads. The 1989 film ends happily—with a sing-along, even—as Almodóvar defiantly ignores the darkness at the heart of the relationship. At first glance, it’s a supremely absurd ending, offensive in how it forgives the rape and violence that transpired, except that lack of development was intentional. Same goes for 1986’s Matador, where a woman kills the men she seduces by stabbing them like a bullfighter. Feel free to roll your eyes at some of the sequences in these films, but don’t think Almodóvar isn’t chortling at the same thing.
It’s important to consider this work within the context of the times: His first films premiered soon after Franco’s death; the mere act of depicting what he did was a political act, and the flippant tone only made that courage more brazen. It’s one thing to present adult material maturely; it’s quite another to be blasé about it.
Of course, that kind of rebellion can only go so far. In 1995, Almodóvar made the relatively conventional The Flower Of My Secret, a yarn about an author who writes under a pseudonym and winds up having to review her own work. At one point, the character attempts to argue for some of her book’s Almodóvarian elements (a drug-addicted son, a husband hiring a hitman) and isn’t terribly convincing. It seems Almodóvar took the lesson to heart, because after that film, the extremes he depicted were always justified.
1. Talk To Her (2002)
This mad, daring, and tragic movie is a love story like no other, not least because the connection is one-sided. Almodóvar’s tone and plotting mean audiences can react any of a number of ways to what transpires, a statement that can apply to the director’s whole career, and speaks to how complexly he sees the world.
2. Volver (2006)
The ideal film for the curious: just as gorgeous and moving as his other masterpieces, while hewing a little closer to being a slice of life. It has the power and sense of detail that characterizes a great novella (and outside of a 10-minute stretch, it’s practically family friendly).
3. Bad Education (2004)
Catholicism has always been an important touchstone for Almodóvar, both the teachings of the church and the church itself. Here, the ideals of the former confront the failings of the latter in a film so charged it can barely bring itself to tell its own story.
4. Women On The Verge Of A Nervous Breakdown (1988)
Before he became the respected auteur he is today, Almodóvar made films that were scrappy and messy. He made his reputation with this 1988 highlight, which encompasses one of the widest range of tones imaginable. This is the one to watch to gauge whether you should get into his earlier work.
5. All About My Mother (1999)
Despite his transgressive material, a lot of Almodóvar’s themes are fairly conservative, considering the importance of familial ties and values. All About My Mother is about a particularly strained makeshift family, but it finds beauty in what many would look away from.