Over the past three decades, Pedro Almodóvar has established himself as one of the most artistically ambitious and commercially successful filmmakers, not just in Spain or in Europe but also all over the world. Highly prolific, he has made 21 features in thirty-five years. There is a pattern to his method. He spends a whole year writing and shooting a film and then, upon release, another year traveling and promoting it at film festivals and in various countries, with the United States a major destination on his tour. Almodóvar has been described, at various points in his career, as a Mediterranean Rainer Werner Fassbinder (or Fassbinder with a sense of humor), a more naïve and less morbid David Lynch, an urban Woody Allen without the neurotic Jewish angst, and a stylish Martin Scorsese without the Catholic guilt.

Pedro Almodovar attends the screening of ‘Julieta’ at the annual 69th Cannes Film Festival at Palais des Festivals on May 17, 2016 in Cannes, France. (Photo by Mike Marsland/Mike Marsland/WireImage)

But none of these labels does justice to his rich oeuvre or idiosyncratic vision. He claims that he is very Spanish because his value system is defined by intuition, spontaneity, and chaos, but that his work has universal meaning.

Almodóvar has evolved from an entertaining “bad boy” in the 1980s to a respected world-class filmmaker in the late 1990s, a status he has been able to maintain. He began his career as a provocateur and sensationalist, making erotically charged films about sexually transgressive themes. But he gradually developed into one of the world’s finest filmmakers, whose works are multi-nuanced, meticulously made, and elegantly shot. Blessed with inspired verve and bold audacity, he has challenged social stereotypes in Spanish culture as well as sexual taboos in world cinema. In his best work, the seductive visual style and acute social conscience converge into features that are dramatically compelling and commercially appealing.

Early on, Almodóvar’s work was dismissed as too zany, too kitschy, or too campy by critics who failed to notice that the jokes and the triviality are just the surface of explorations of more serious concerns. Indeed, the comedic and farcical touches make his darker dramas about sexual politics and various abuses more tolerable to watch. Nonetheless, some critics have continued to apply the labels of “cinema of surfaces” and “cinema of excess” to his work.

Almodóvar’s films have evoked diverse, even contradictory, reactions because they display divergent tonality and ambiguous morality, offering spectators different kinds of pleasures, from the visceral and voyeuristic to the more emotionally grave and radically transformative. In most of his films, the director has relied on a wide range of characters and on a large ensemble of actors, a strategy that enriches his films and reflects his belief that ensembles are more democratic than single-star texts. Having a large group of characters as his basic narrative unit and carrier of meanings also functions as a safety valve, because it allows the viewers—male and female, straight and gay—to empathize and/or to sympathize with at least some of them. In contrast, in most of Gus Van Sant’s and Todd Haynes’s films the narrative centers on one or a few individuals.

Despite the dark tone and noirish sensibility of many of his films, Almodóvar is at heart an optimistic director. He is, in fact, the most upbeat and the least cynical of this book’s five filmmakers. This derives from the particular circumstances in which he grew up.

“The characters in my films utterly break with the past, which is to say, most of them are apolitical. We are constructing a new past for ourselves, because we don’t like the one we had.”

Pedro Almodóvar

Despite his increasing age and growing experience, his future-oriented credo has not wavered.

Individuals must always improve or strive to improve on their reality, no matter what that reality is.

Pedro Almodóvar

Almodóvar’s work goes beyond well-constructed narratives, showing multi-layered meaning and skillful mise-en-scène, even when the texts rely on excessive design and lurid costumes. His oeuvre defies the theory that old narratives and classic genres—screwball comedy, noir crime, woman’s melodrama—are no longer functional (that is, useful) in our postmodern world. In fact, his films are very much revisionist genre pictures to which he applies a novel, postmodern strategy. He likes to destabilize codes of traditional genres by combining their elements.

I mix all the genres. You can say my films are melodramas, comedies, tragicomedies, because I put everything together, and even change genres within the same sequence, and very quickly.

Pedro Almodóvar

For Almodóvar, every element of life, including biological and human anatomy, is subject to change. Bodies, minds, hearts, and souls are not as fixed or stable as they might appear on the surface. His narratives permit boundary confusions of sex, gender, and identity. In his deliriously complicated plots, the characters are able to—and often do—change their bodies and identities with incredible speed, fluidity, and elasticity.

The key concepts in Almodóvar’s work are passion, desire, sexuality (or rather sexualities), pleasure, and happiness. When his film Bad Education came out in 2004—the same year that Mel Gibson’s controversial religious epic The Passion of the Christ was released—he explained:

I 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.

Pedro Almodóvar

Almodóvar’s output is richly dense with references to other films, TV soap operas and ads, pop culture, music, and literature. Intertextual connections and allusions are crucial to his work, as Marsha Kinder pointed out, because “they counteract the potentially dehumanizing effects of his grotesque humor.” He uses self-consciousness and artifice effectively to undermine Hollywood’s seemingly “naturalistic” or “realistic” cinema, as do Haynes and John Waters (albeit in different ways).

Almodóvar’s work is self-reflexive:

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 DePalma.

Pedro Almodóvar

He elaborated:

All the influences on me and all the references in my films are spontaneous and visual. I don’t make any tributes. I’m a very naïve spectator. I can’t learn from the movies that I love—they become part of my life and my movies without quotation marks.

Pedro Almodóvar

Steeped in pop culture lore of the past, particularly Hollywood of the studio system, Almodóvar, like Fassbinder, could not have evolved into the major and particular artist he has become without his knowledge of American filmmakers, from A-grade directors like Alfred Hitchcock, Howard Hawks, Douglas Sirk, Billy Wilder, and Vincente Minnelli to B-level directors like Frank Tashlin, Hamer, and even Waters. His seemingly absurd narratives blend kitsch, fantasy, and humor, resulting in explorations of human feelings of the deepest kind.

I find the clichés of popular culture both very funny and very alive. I like to play with them, to create a narrative angle that makes them part of my movies as they are part of my life.

Pedro Almodóvar

Although Almodóvar’s films show consistent concern with social issues (domination, oppression, rape, homophobia, transgendering, physical disability, and mental illness), there is a remarkable lack of political agendas. The outrageous, the perverse, the deviant, and the incongruous are displayed in his oeuvre as normal and existing states of being. Refusing to take a moral stance against any issue, he is a nonjudgmental director. His mise-en-scène is stylized and theatrical, but it is firmly grounded in his visual energy and impressive ability to change tone from scene to scene—and often within the same scene. Significantly, unlike Waters, Almodóvar has never celebrated bad taste or gross tackiness for its own sake. Nor has he made camp movies just for the sake of being camp. With the exception of one or two films, there is no deliberate violation of taste or crass vulgarity in his features.

Pedro Almodovar
Photograph by Nico Bustos

Almodóvar achieved international recognition for his black comedy-drama film Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown (1988), which was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film, and went on to more success with the dark romantic comedy film Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! (1990), the melodrama High Heels (1991) and the romantic drama thriller Live Flesh (1997).

His subsequent two films won an Academy Award each: All About My Mother (1999) received the award for Best Foreign Language Film while Talk to Her (2002) earned him the award for Best Original Screenplay. Almodóvar followed this with the drama Volver (2006), the romantic thriller Broken Embraces (2009), the psychological thriller The Skin I Live In (2011) and the dramas Julieta (2016) and Pain and Glory (2019), all of which were in competition for the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival.

Acclaimed as one of the most internationally successful Spanish filmmakers, Almodóvar and his films have gained worldwide interest and developed a cult following. He has won two Academy Awards, five British Academy Film Awards, six European Film Awards, two Golden Globe Awards, nine Goya Awards and four prizes at the Cannes Film Festival. In 1997, Almodóvar received the French Legion of Honour, followed by the Gold Medal of Merit in the Fine Arts by the Spanish Ministry of Culture in 1999.

Almodóvar’s Filmography:

Psycho Clan

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