Saturday, September 10, 2011

A Half Dozen From Almodovar

Last month, the Castro showed six films by Spanish director Pedro Almodovar. The films were touring the country in advance of his upcoming release, The Skin I Live In which is opening October 14 in the US. The poster outside the Castro listed eight Almodovar films but the Castro screened a double bill three nights in a row. I can't recall the two films which didn't screen.

Bad Education; Spanish with subtitles; (2004) - Official Website
Law of Desire starring Carmen Maura & Antonio Banderas; Spanish with subtitles; (1987)
Talk To Her; Spanish with subtitles; (2002) Official Website
All About My Mother starring Cecilia Roth, Marisa Paredes & Penélope Cruz; Spanish with subtitles; (1999)
The Flower of My Secret starring Marisa Paredes; Spanish with subtitles; (1995)
Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown starring Carmen Maura & Antonio Banderas; Spanish with subtitles; (1988)

All films were directed by Almodovar.

I didn't plan on seeing all six but after Bad Education and Law of Desire, I was hooked and kept coming back each night; I wasn't disappointed. About 10 years ago, the Roxie had an Almodovar series. I wanted Tie Me Up, Tie Me Down, Pepi, Luci, Bom and Other Girls Like Mom and few more which I can't recall. I think I saw Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown but if so, I couldn't recall it. Anyway, I was mild about Pedro going into the series. After three days, I was converted to an Almodovar acolyte. I'd wish he would tone down the trannies and drag queens but even with those flourishes, there is much to admire in Almodovar's films.


My favorite film of the series was Talk To Her which is about a male nurse who is hired to provide private care to a comatose patient. It turns out the nurse, Benigno (Javier Cámara) had been stalking the patient prior to her accident. Benigno is a milquetoast type but is obviously devoted to his patient; his personal attention to her borders on sensuous. Ultimately, the patient becomes pregnant and Benigno is imprisoned.

Prior to his incarceration, Benigno had made friends with Marco, a journalist who held vigil over his comatose girlfriend (a female toreador) only to find she was planning on breaking it off with him prior to her injuries in the bullring. Most of the film unfolds in flashback as Marco investigates Benigno and his circumstances.

I previously said Almodovar relies on drag queen "flourishes" to buoy his films (mainly comedies). Talk To Her is close to drama although Almodovar indulges himself with interpretive dances choreographed by Pina Bausch and a silent film segment where a shrinking man disappears inside a woman's vagina. By that point, it is clear that Benigno has issues. Not gay but decidedly effeminate, Benigno seems more afraid of women than anything else. His opportunity to care for and caress the comatose object of his desire is more than he could hope for if she had remained healthy. His desire for her comes off as creepy and pathetic although oddly benign (hence his character's name). This delicate balanced performance by Javier Camara combined with the surreal & whimsical components create an amazing film which resulted in me being simultaneously repulsed and sympathetic towards Benigno. The secondary story about Marco and his bullfighter was less interesting for me but served as a counterpoint to Nurse Benigno with the woman in the traditionally male job.

Talk To Her has a quiet and understated feel which contrasts from Almodovar's more raucous comedies. The difference was well appreciated by me.


Bad Education had the look and feel of a queer Brian De Palma film from the 1970s. Set in 1980, Enrique, a film director, is visited by Ignacio, his classmate and first love from boarding school. Ignacio drops off a screenplay called The Visit for Enrique to read. Bad Education switches to a film-within-a-film as Enrique reads The Visit. The Visit is about a drag queen named Zahara (real name Ignacio) who plans to roll a drunk for his wallet when "she" discovers the man is "her boyhood" lover Enrique. Zahara next visits her old school and confronts Father Manolo who sexually abused Ignacio. Zahara threatens to publish a story (called The Visit) about a priest who is infatuated with a boy named Enrique. The priest finds Enrique and Ignacio together and threatens to expel Enrique. Ignacio gives himself to the priest in exchange for not expelling Enrique; the priest agrees but later reneges on his promise.

All this reminds Enrique of his own youth so he agrees to film the screenplay. Ignacio (calling himself Ángel) insists on playing the role of Zahara but feels uncomfortable because the Ignacio/Ángel before him is completely different than the boy he loved. After some investigating, Enrique discovers that Ignacio has been dead for several years and the person impersonating Ignacio is likely his younger brother Juan. These plot twists are part and parcel of typical Almodovar film.

The second half of the film tells the story of Juan, the real Father Manolo (now using the alias Berenguer) and the circumstances of Ignacio's death. Telling more of the plot only serves to show how Almodovar is toying with his audience. The story within a film within a film is not much different from the film. It's obvious that Almodovar is having a great time. At one point, Berenguer and Juan go to a movie theater showing a film noir series and the older man states their lives are like something out of a movie.

I viewed the film as a comedy and melodrama but is there something serious under the surface? There is a lot of role playing and hidden identities. He also shows us, in relatively tragic terms, the consequences of desire and sex. Not exactly existential questions but highly enjoyable in the hands of a master like Almodovar. If Bad Education reminded me of De Palma, then by extension, Bad Education reminded me of Hitchcock but it's Hitchcock without the censors and with a queer twist. Strangely, I began to forget about the gender of the lovers which is probably what Almodovar wanted.

Bad Education was like a roller coaster ride at the carnival - a lot of laughing, many unexpected twists & turns and afterwards, a desire to ride it again. If Almodovar didn't show the emotional maturity he showed in Talk To Her, he certainly displayed a mastery in his vocation which I admired and thoroughly enjoyed.


All About My Mother was another intricately plotted comedy interlaced with moments of extreme tragedy. Manuela (Cecilia Roth) returns to Barcelona after her teenage son is killed in a car accident. While in Barcelona, Manuela comes into contact with a witty & outgoing transexual prostitute (Antonia San Juan), a nun (Penélope Cruz) who is impregnated and infected by HIV from Manuela's ex-husband (who also is a trannie whore) and Huma Rojo (Marisa Paredes), an actress greatly admired by Manuela's late son and was indirectly & unknowingly the cause of his fatal accident.

For my taste, Almodovar pushes the limit of contrived coincidences and trannies in All About My Mother. I enjoyed the film but at times, it was just a little too much. Nonetheless, the pain from the various tragedies keep the film from going to far off the reservation. A few of the character could have been trimmed out but then it wouldn't have been an Almodovar film.


The other three films (Law of Desire, The Flower of My Secret & Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown) were, chronologically, Almodovar's earliest films from the series. If the six films are any indication, Almodovar has reached a new level as a director since 1995. Almodovar seem to have a deft touch at comedy since his earliest works but in his later films, he has been able to mix drama and conflict into this films to a greater degree.

Law of Desire, The Flower of My Secret & Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown were comedies with varying degrees of drama. Bad Education, Talk To Her and All About My Mother were dramas with liberal servings of comedy.

I enjoyed Law of Desire, The Flower of My Secret & Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown but compared to the other three films in the series, they fell short. That's a bit unfair since they made me laugh and didn't obviously aspire to be too much more than comedies. The Flower of My Secret is clearly a turning point if these six films are indicative of Almodovar's career. He scales back some of the absurdity and allows his actors to give more subtle performances. It's also clear that Almodovar has an affinity for actresses as most of his plum roles are written for women (or trannies). Cecilia Roth, Carmen Maura, Marisa Paredes & Penélope Cruz were featured in this series and Almodovar had a long & fruitful run featuring Victoria Abril in his films.

This series left me wanting to see more films from Almodovar. The Skin I Live In will definitely be on "To See" list when it open next month.

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