Pedro Almódovar - Five of the Best

Photo of A. J. Samuels
21 December 2016

Widely regarded as the most influential Spanish director since Luis Buñuel, Pedro Almodóvar has cemented his place as the foremost Spanish auteur over the last four decades. With his brash, bold, in-your-face style, this master of melodrama remains one of the few directors whose work is identifiable by sight and experience alone. We look at his 2013 release I’m So Excited and further highlight five definitive Almodóvar films.

Pedro Almódovar’s 2013 release is set on an airplane, when a technical malfunctions threatens the lives of all those on board. A comedy, the film uses this high-stakes setting to analyse some of the absurdities of the human condition and modern day life. Full of humour and iconic characters, I’m So Excited is a must watch for all Almódovar fans.

All About My Mother (Todo Sobre mi Madre) – 1999

Pedro Almodóvar has long been praised as a director of women. Following notable early works including Dark Habits (1983), Women on The Verge of a Nervous Breakdown (1988), and High Heels (1991), All About My Mother is no exception. With a phenomenal female cast that includes career defining performances from Cecilia Roth and Marisa Paredes, Almodóvar portrays sisterhood, motherhood, love, loss and femininity in all its guises with a naturalistic touch whilst also showcasing his trademark flare of using bright, glossy, flamboyant colours.

Yet unlike in his earlier films, All About My Mother radiates a more controlled vibrancy that balances and refines elements that previously led to his work being labelled as kitsch or camp and allows the narrative to flow unhindered. Rather than being deliberately confrontational, the film’s themes are subtly. Through this balanced coupling of thematic subtlety and trademark style, Almodóvar seeks to transplant us into his world, an environment created in entirety of itself, something we would otherwise be unable to experience.

In this film, in homage to classical actresses of a bygone Hollywood era, Almodóvar himself ends the film with a touching tribute. – ‘To all actresses who have played actresses. To all women who act. To men who act and become women. To all people who want to be mothers. To my mother.’

Talk To Her (Hable con ella) – 2002

Talk To Her saw a change in focus, with two male leads at the epicentre of this moving melodrama. The story follows the chance encounter in a coma ward of Benigno Martín (Javier Cámara) and Marco Zuluaga (Darío Grandinetti) who are both caring for the women they love. Almodóvar uses flashbacks to reveal the genesis of each man’s affections for their female halves and it is in exploring these relationships that the audience is subject to the challenging themes the film presents: the difficulty of communication between the sexes, loneliness, intimacy, obsession, and the persistence of love.

Whilst some of these themes in particular hold Benigno in a morally reprehensible light, Almodóvar’s deft handling of the characters with utmost sincerity and compassion allows the viewer to remain sympathetic without feeling manipulated. As the film progresses the narratives of the two central characters become increasingly intertwined, each unaware of how his fate is being woven with another, as the film reaches its climactic yet affirming crescendo.

Bad Education (La Mala Educación) – 2004

Taking a drastic turn for his next film, Bad Education is one of Almodóvar’s darkest pieces to date. With comparisons to earlier work such as Matador (1986), and Law of Desire (1987), its centres around misconduct within the Catholic Church. The narrative draws deeply from the director’s personal experiences; from the age of eight Almodóvar attended a Catholic boarding school in the city of Cáceres, and it was during these years that he discovered cinema in a local theatre as a means of escape from the difficult period of his young adolescence.

According to Almodóvar, the film’s screenplay took ten years to write. Almodóvar himself has said, ‘It deals with my own biography…it took time to remove myself from it. Now it’s not me. I changed the tone of the story, but the main situation is the same.’ Understanding the autobiographical underpinnings of the film only seeks to make it more poignant; whilst it is difficult to watch at times, it is far enough removed from reality that it still remains rewarding.

Bad Education is a film of two halves. The first is a story of lost love and mixed identities. The second is a noir murder mystery. Effectively emulating conventions of the thriller, Bad Education is laced with nods to the genre with an opening title sequence that conjures images of Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo and a similarly Hitchcockian soundtrack. At times this culminates in such a sense of impending dread, one feels it would hardly be out of place in a contemporary horror film.

Volver – 2006

Volver returns to the focus on women; Almodóvar’s opening sequence immediately encapsulates the underlying message of Volver. Beginning in a cemetery, the camera shows a gaggle of women furiously scrubbing and polishing the graves of their beloved. The symbolism is prevalent – the way that the deceased continue to affect our lives even after they have left the natural world. Almodovar expands upon this theme through the film, in particular from the intimately human perspective of the women of La Mancha, which gives a real sense of unwavering emotional depth.

Like Bad Education, though in a very different way, Volver is rooted in Almodóvar’s personal experiences. Citing his upbringing as inspiration for many of the characters, Almodóvar clearly revels in the chance to immortalise the La Mancha women near and dear to him. At the same time, Almodóvar also reveals a lightly critical gaze; reality and trash television play a role in the lives of these women, and their ‘real’ lives seem to echo elements of the very thing they at times deride. Cheekily mischievous, Volver is a magical melodrama that is simultaneously playful and aesthetically sublime.

The Skin I Live In (La Piel que Habito) – 2011

The tale of a modern day Frankenstein, Almodóvar’s most recent outing packs a punch in the shock and awe department. The lead role is played by Antonio Banderas, who gives a commanding performance as the remorselessly calculating surgeon Robert Ledgard. Desperate to hold onto the memory of his deceased wife, Ledgard manipulates an unidentifiable female hostage both physically and mentally to cataclysmic ends.

This film marks Almodóvar’s closest delving into the world of horror. Masterfully directed, moments of sheer terror become more spine-shiveringly satisfying when juxtaposed with its strong narrative backbone. Questions about identity and self-conception have been prevalent in Almodóvar’s work, but The Skin I live In unashamedly explores these questions. Mystifying, brooding, brutal, The Skin I Live In shows that Almodóvar is far from running out of ideas. Initially labelled as camp and kitsch, Almodóvar has managed to refine and control his style without losing the early potency of his work. Over the last four decades, Almodóvar has moved out of the sphere of European art house cinema into more mainstream recognition; more relevant than ever, his next film is titled, fittingly, I’m So Excited.

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