Arguably the most popular and important filmmaker to have emerged from Spain, director Pedro Almodovar forged a reputation as a sexual agent provocateur capable of eliciting both serious praise and unbridled revulsion. Reveling in the former and railing against the latter, Almodovar remained faithful to his native Spain for the entirety of his career in order to assure he could make the films he wanted. Having earned his first substantial notice for the low-budget “Pepi, Luci, Bom and Other Girls Like Mom” (1980), he thrived on making outlandish and provocative films throughout the decade, culminating in his first international success, “Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown” (1988). Almodovar went from celebrated Spanish filmmaker to notorious purveyor of sexually explicit material with “Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!” (1990) and “Kika” (1993), both of which spurred the ire of the puritanical Motion Picture Association of America, which slapped near-pornographic ratings on the films – an action that sparked outrage from the director. Nonetheless, Almodovar would triumph with “Live Flesh” (1998), “All About My Mother” (1999) and “Talk To Her” (2002), three dark and poignant films that marked a substantial evolution in his filmmaking maturity. Because of this, Almodovar – with a little help from his self-proclaimed cinematic muse, Penelope Cruz, by his side – entered the 21st century as a highly refined filmmaker, capable of earning the respect and adulation of international audiences while staying true to his native country.
Born on Sept. 25, 1949 in Calzada de Calatrava, La Mancha, Spain, Almodovar was raised in that small southern agricultural village by his father, Antonio, a failed winemaker who worked various odd jobs, and his mother, Francisca. Both his parents grew up in poverty, which compelled them to instill the idea of finding a good, secure job into Almodovar from a very young age. But the young boy discovered cinema instead and spent a great deal of time watching movies from all over the world dubbed into Spanish. When he was eight years old, his family moved to Extremadura, where his father supported the family by working at a gas station. Almodovar earned a scholarship to a Catholic boarding school in Caceres, where he stayed until his adolescence. Upon his return home, he declared his desire to move to Madrid, where he intended to study filmmaking at the national film school. Though his father forbade him to go after having found him a job at the local bank, Almodovar was determined to leave the small town and make his way as a director. To him, staying would have been dying an early death.
By the time he moved to Madrid in the late 1960s, Spanish dictator Francisco Franco had shut down the national film school, fearing creative dissent. So instead, Almodovar forged ahead with his own education by watching countless movies at the local theater, making sure to watch everything from Godard and the Italian neo-realists to American noir and schlock master Roger Corman. While he earned money working a day job at Telefonica, Spain’s national phone company, Almodovar bought a Super-8 camera and began making numerous short films, including “Two Whores, or a Love Story Which Ends in Marriage” (1974). Following Franco’s death in 1975, Spain’s cultural life flourished once the dictator’s oppressive regime was gone from power. Almodovar thrived during the vibrant explosion of wild behavior and hedonism that quickly swept Madrid and other areas, as he continued making films while writing scripts, performing in a glam punk band and joining a theater group that introduced him to several emerging actors with whom he would later work, including Antonio Banderas. Meanwhile, using his Super-8, Almodovar directed his first feature length film, “Folle, Folle, Folleme, Tim (F*ck, F*ck, F*ck Me, Tim)” (1978).
Pedro Almodovar in Talk to Her set
After graduating to 16mm stock for his next feature, “Salome” (1978), Almodovar broke through with his first commercial film, “Pepi, Luci, Bom and Other Girls Like Mom” (1980), a low-budget satire about female friendship and solidarity in the face of an oppressive society that was a success in Spain due to its campy style, outrageous humor and unbridled sexuality – all resulting from the newfound freedom of Franco’s death. Following “Labyrinth of Desire” (1982), his first collaboration with Antonio Banderas, Almodovar forged ahead to develop an eye-popping colorful style, making affectionately off-the-wall movies that chronicled the dark, bawdy and ultimately lonely misadventures of people living on the fringes of society – heroin-shooting nuns in “Dark Habits” (1983), a speed-addicted cleaning woman in “What Have I Done to Deserve This?” (1984), a murderous bullfighter in “Matador” (1986), and lovelorn homosexuals and transsexuals in “Law and Desire” (1987), a film that drew fire for its depiction of unprotected gay sex. Though openly gay, Almodovar took umbrage at what he considered the pejorative label of being a gay filmmaker, arguing that the homosexuality depicted in his films did not make them gay films. The director successfully transcended early attempts to classify him by becoming the undisputed leader of the New Spanish Cinema.
Funny, outrageous, sexy – even kinky – Almodovar’s early movies were driven by headstrong and high-strung heroines, earning him a reputation as an astute director of women. He achieved international acclaim with the exuberant farce “Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown” (1988), a witty, wacky and irreverent look at modern love as seen through the relationships of several neurotic women. Audiences responded enthusiastically to the director’s manic exposé of 1980s Madrid as a playground for female-centric humor, making the film one of the most successful in Spain’s history, while earning international adulation and an Academy Award nomination for Best Foreign Film. Most significantly, “Women” broke through in the United States, where it grossed a surprising $7 million at the box office. For his next film, Almodovar attempted a high comedy in the vein of “How to Marry a Millionaire” (1953), resulting in what he called an “absolutely white” movie covering 48 hours in the lives of several hysterical women with no time for even sex or drugs. Though seemingly at odds with the uninhibited signature of his earlier work, the lack of oral sex acts and dope that made it – in the words of leading lady Maura, “a film that our nephews will be allowed to see” – also made it more accessible to conservative U.S. audiences.
His next film, “Atame!/Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!” (1990), however, earned an X rating for its one prolonged sex scene, which showed the two lovers only from the waist up and focused primarily on the woman’s sexual fulfillment. Perhaps the success of “Women” had made him a target of the MPAA, but the advocacy of William Kunstler on the picture’s behalf failed to dissuade the ratings board. The X rating stood, causing the incensed director to compare MPAA’s tactics to fascist techniques under Franco. “Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!” – the director’s fifth and final movie with Banderas – grossed $4 million in the States. Americans who loved the campy “Women” responded less enthusiastically to the plot that involved an obsessive man (Banderas) kidnapping a beautiful woman (Victoria Abril) and demanding that she love him. Next for Almodovar was “High Heels” (1991), which started in his typically irreverent, wacky style, but the melodramatic film about a television anchorwoman (Abril) and her eccentric mother (Marisa Paredes) getting caught up in murder ultimately ran out of steam about halfway through. Meanwhile, a lengthy rape scene in “Kika” (1993) led to cries of exploitation, once again causing the director to decry Americans as puritanical and lacking a sense of humor.
Almodovar moved on to his next film, “The Flower of My Secret” (1995), which – while true to Almodovar’s typically sympathetic focus on the plight of a contemporary Spanish woman (Marisa Paredes) – also revealed a more mature artist at work. Audiences expecting the enfant terrible’s familiar, off-beat black humor saw a return to the masterful high comedy of urban life, accompanied by the sad notes of resignation and compromise that signaled a new austerity. With “Live Flesh” (1998), Almodovar moved past never referring to Franco while showing that he could fuse visual and sexual anarchy with the most elegant of plots. He also, for the first time, filmed material which he had not originated, loosely adapting Ruth Rendell’s novel into a completely Spanish sensibility. Starting with a prostitute giving birth a son during the last days of Franco in the 1970s, “Live Flesh” focused on seemingly random people and events brought together by a single gunshot, turning a police officer into a paraplegic and the boy born on the bus into a convict. More politically-minded and sober, Almodovar reinvented himself as a consummate stylist with a serious touch. The departure from his wildly comedic storylines represented the evolution of a director who needed to tackle fresh and dangerous territory to escape becoming mannered.
Almodovar successfully fused his new maturity to the outlandishness of his past films with perhaps his finest offering to date, “All About My Mother” (1999), a compassionate and often bittersweet drama about a single mother (Cecilia Roth) grieving the loss of her only son (Eloy Azorín), who travels to Barcelona to find his long-estranged father who is now a transvestite. The grieving mother receives help from old acquaintances, including a transsexual (Antonia San Juan) who introducers her to a kind-hearted nun (Penélope Cruz). Bright, witty and not without melancholy, “All About My Mother” was hailed by critics as being one of Almodovar’s best films. It went on to win numerous awards the world over, including an Academy Award for Best Foreign Film. Almodovar delivered another fine offering with “Talk To Her” (2002), an offbeat drama about two men (Javier Camára and Darío Grandinetti) brought together by eerily strange and similar circumstances – namely that the two women they are infatuated with (Leonor Watling and Rosario Flores) have both ended up in comas resulting from freak accidents. Once again, Almodovar’s maturity as a filmmaker was on full display, while he earned even more critical praise and another Academy Award; this time for Best Original Screenplay.
Returning somewhat to the provocative nature of his earlier work, Almodovar directed “Bad Education” (2004), a thoughtful examination of sexual misconduct perpetrated by the Catholic Church upon two young boys who grow up 20 years later to become a film director (Fele Martínez) and an out-of-work actor (Gael García Bernal) who transforms himself into a transsexual in order to play the lead in a film. Partially based on his own travails with a Catholic experience, “Bad Education” was a surprisingly dark and somber film that reflected upon the themes of lost love and the demons of one’s own past. The film opened that year’s Cannes Film Festival and went on to do respectable business worldwide while earning the director even further acclaim. Reuniting with who was fast becoming his onscreen muse, Penélope Cruz, Almodovar helmed “Volver” (2007), a dark and otherworldly dark comedy that explored the relationship of three generations of women that ultimately ends in tragedy. Hailed by critics once again, Almodovar’s “Volver” was a hit at the 2007 Cannes Film Festival and helped net Cruz an Oscar nomination for Best Actress. The director tapped Cruz a third time for his next film, “Broken Embraces” (2009), a neo-noir thriller about a writer who was blinded by a brutal car accident still lamenting the loss of his one true love (Cruz).
Pedro Almodovar movies
1. Broken Embraces (2009) Director
2. Volver (2006) Director
3. Bad Education (2004) Director
4. Eros (2004) Director (Wraparounds)
5. Talk to Her (2002) Creator (Of Silent B&W Short “The Shrinking Lover”), Director
6. All About My Mother (1999) Director
7. Live Flesh (1997) Director
8. Flower of My Secret, The (1995) Director
9. Kika (1993) Director
10. High Heels (1991) Director
CAST: (feature film)
1. Coração Vagabundo (2008) Himself
2. Je T’aime…Moi Non Plus (2007) Cast
3. Words In Progress (2004) Himself
4. Labyrinth of Passion (1982) Performer
Among many others.
Pedro Almodovar movies
Filed Under: Director Profile