Almodovar: What Makes Pedro Run? Part One

Over the past four decades, Pedro Almodovar has established himself as one of the most artistically ambitious and most commercially consistent filmmaker not just in Spain or Europe, but all over the world.

Highly prolific, Almodovar has made 18 features in 33 years. There is a pattern to his method: He spends a whole year writing and shooting a film, and then a whole year traveling and promoting it in various festivals and countries, with the U.S. occupying a major spot.

Almodovar has evolved from an entertaining “bad boy” in the 1980s to a respected world-class filmmaker in the 1990s, a status he has maintained to the present time. He began his career as a provocateur and sensationalist, but gradually evolved into one of Europe’s–and the world’s–finest filmmakers whose works are meticulously made and elegantly shot.

For three decades, Almodovar has boldly challenged social stereotypes and filmic taboos with lively and inspired verve. In his best work, seductive visual style and acute social conscience converge into aesthetically compelling and commercially successful features.

Early on, Almodovar’s work was dismissed as too zany, too kitschy, too campy by critics who failed to notice that the jokes, the humor, and the triviality were just surface for the exploration of more serious concerns. Throughout his career, Almodovar’s darker, bitter dramas are made sweeter and more tolerable by infusing them with comedic and farcical touches.

Almodovar’s features have always provoked diverse, even contradictory responses, because they display multiple narrativity, tonality, and style, offering spectators the opportunity to experience different kinds of pleasures. The range of characters in his films is wide, allowing viewers, male or female, straight or gay, to empathize, sympathize, and even identify with them.

Most of his features have focused sympathetically on the plight of contemporary Spanish women, particularly working class women, reflecting his own social class background. However, while Almodovar loves women, his work doesn’t follow any doctrinaire feminist ideology or any other rigid political platform.

By challenging established gender and sex roles, Alomodovar contested Spain’s long prevailing stereotypes of sexual politics–machismo men on the one hand and passive suffering women on the other. In the process, he has helped abolish Spain’s reactionary past, defined by patriarchy and clear sexual segregation.

Almodovar has placed strong female protagonists center-stage, and weak male characters in the periphery, or altogether offstage. Indeed, there are far less men than women in his work. He has been seeking truth in travesty through uncompromising explorations of such universal issues as love, desire, and happiness.

Almodovar’s films have successfully shown the ordinariness in the extraordinary lives of women, and vice versa, the extraordinariness in ordinary existence. The excess and extraordinariness are accepted by him as natural, even normal states or being. Like other gay directors, he has questioned what society considers to be normal and normative.

Remarkably, he has portrayed the sensational aspects of everyday life and taboo-breaking with smooth ease and naturalness. The “real” and “external” worlds of his characters is absorbed into unusually complicated, often labyrinth filmic texts.

Despite the dark tone and noirish sensibility of his films, Almodovar, unlike, say Denmark’s Lars Von Trier, is at heart an optimistic director. He is, in fact, the most upbeat and the least cynical director of the five filmmakers discussed in this book. His credo has not wavered: “Individuals must always improve, or strive to improve, on their reality, no matter what that reality is.”

Almodovar’s work goes beyond carefully constructed narratives, showing increasingly skillful technique, highly stylized mise-en-scene, even if his texts continue to rely on excessive design and lurid costumes. His work defies the theory that old narratives and classic film genres–the screwball comedy, the noir crime, the women’s melodrama– are no longer functional (that is useful) in the postmodern world of cinema.

The key concepts in his work are erotic desire and personal redemption. As he himself explained, when “Bad Education” came out in 2004, the same year that Mel Gibson’s controversial “Passion of Christ” was released: “Ï am the anti-Mel Gibson director. My movie is about the power of faith, and so is his film, but I am in the opposite place from him. My goal as a writer is to have empathy for all characters. In all my films, I have a tendency to redeem my characters. It is very Catholic—redemption is one of the most appealing parts of the religion. Sadly, I am not a believer in Catholicism, but the priest is probably my favorite character in ‘Bad Education.’ I love characters that are crazy in love and will give their life to passion, even if they have to burn in hell.”

For Alomodvar, every element in life is subject to change. Bodies, minds, hearts and souls are not as stable as they might appear. His narratives permit fluid identifications and boundary confusions. In Almodovar’s deliriously complicated plots, the characters are able—and often do—change their bodies and identities with fluidity and even elasticity.

His work is richly dense with references to film, TV, pop culture, music, and literature. For Almodovar, self-consciousness is an effective tool for undermining mainstream Hollywood’s seemingly “naturalistic” and “realistic” cinema. Almodovar’s cinema is both reflexive and self-reflexive, as he had stated: “I use cinema in a very active way, never as a pastiche or homage, because for me, a film is something that once I have seen it, it has become part of my experience. I put these movies in the middle of my films, and they become part of the story, but never in the sense of being a cinephile like Tarantino or Spielberg or De Palma.”

No doubt, there is thematic, verbal, or visual excess in Almodovar’s work. No act of perversion, or form of deviance, is outside of his realm. There are literally no borders, no boundaries, no limitations to his creative imagination. And while there is consistent concern with timely social issues (AIDS, sexual oppression, rape, homophobia, transgendering), there is remarkable lack of political agendas of any kind.

The outrageous, perverse, deviant, and incongruous are presented in Almodovar’s oeuvre as normal and possible. But significantly, unlike John Waters, Almodovar has never celebrated bad taste for bad taste’s sake. Nor has he made campy movies just for the sake of being campy. There is no deliberate violation of taste, no crass vulgarity in any of his features