Since the late 1970s, Pedro Almodovar has emerged as an underground transgressive cineaste that has surprisingly gone on to establish himself as the most important Spanish filmmaker of the last twenty years, and become a major breakthrough figure in world cinema as well. Despite his domestic and international success, Almodovar has remained somewhat of a controversial figure throughout his career. If you subscribe to the ‘auteur theory’ then the key defining feature of Almodóvar work, along with his signature visual brilliance, is the subversion of identity; his films are populated by characters that question and subvert their personae, gender, religion and the other constructs of society. This has often made him a polarising figure, resulting in unequivocal acclaim by certain media outlets and vilification by others with a more conservative leaning.
You can therefore always guarantee that Almodovar will never leave you with a pervading feeling of indifference. This week saw the return to the big screen of Almodovar, with The Skin I Live In garnering positive praise, so there’s no better time to look back at his career and celebrate the five best features in his filmography.
This film marked Almodóvar first big international success, including a nomination at the 1989 Academy Awards for Best Foreign Language Film, as well as a 5 award sweep at the Spanish Goya Awards. A fast paced farce about obsessive love and death, the story concerns a series of misconnections, random encounters and coincidences when Ivan (Fernando Guillen) leaves his pregnant wife Pepa (Carmen Maura) who then frantically tries to track him down. She bumps into his other woman Lucia (Julietta Serano) and given the title, you can imagine things get a little more complicated along the way. Almodovar orchestrates an emotionally satisfying climax when Pepa realises that in her madness she has in fact finally taken control of her own destiny, becoming another of the strong female characters Almodovar is famous for.
4. Live Flesh (1998)
Victor Plaza (Liberto Rabal) is a prostitute’s son born on a Madrid bus on the same day in 1970 that Franco cracked down on personal liberties in Spain. He gets himself into serious trouble as a young man, is sent to prison, but emerges while still in his 20s and he’s eager to claim his personal freedom in a newly energized Spain. Franco has died, and Victor has an electrifying effect on everyone he meets. As the male lead in an Almodovar film, Rabal has a rougher and more unpredictable nature that his antecedent in such lead parts, the better known but more conventional Antonio Banderas, did not possess. Almodovar does the comedy of sexual passion better than anyone else.
3. Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! (1990)
If Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown was a satire of the faithless lothario, this film is its darkly comic antithesis, the story of an all-too-devoted lover. As a line from the script informs us: “Horror or love story, it’s hard to tell them apart.” Victoria Abril is Marina, a former junkie and porn star struggling for stability in her life. She seems just to be coming into her own as a relatively respectable B-movie queen when she runs up against Ricky (another showing
from Antonio Banderas), a handyman just released from a mental hospital. This is an orgiastic comedy of horrors and errors.
2. All About My Mother (1999)
After years of flirting with international popularity only Almodovar finally hit the big time with this film. All About My Mother continues Almodóvar noted preoccupations with women on the verge of breakdowns, screwball melodramas, and flamboyant visual touches, but this time he manages to merge all these distinctive elements with a cohesive story about the faces and roles we all adopt in public. To describe too much of the plot would be a disservice but rest assured it’s filled with marvellous performances, fabulous wit, and some dizzying images.
1. Talk To Her (2002)
In undoubtedly his best film, Almodovar has created a tragic-comedy about desire, its cathartic and binding powers. It just edges out mainly due to Almodovar not mining the comic strip soap opera mystique so extravagantly instead everything falls into place with an almost surreal delicacy. Marco (Dario Grandinetti) is in love with Lydia (Rosario Flores), a female bullfighter who is gored by a bull and falls into a coma. In the hospital, Marco crosses paths with Benigno (Javier Camara), a male nurse who looks after another coma patient, a young dancer named Alicia (Leonor Watling). From Benigno’s gentle attentiveness to Alicia, Marco learns to take care of Lydia but from there, the story goes to places you couldn’t possibly predict. Like all great doomed affairs when Talk to Her is over, the realization of how much the movie has effected you really sinks in; you’ll struggle to get it out of your head.
Read The Film Pilgrim’s review of The Skin I Live In