Writer, producer and director Pedro Almodóvar is arguably the most well-known and well-regarded Spanish filmmaker in the country’s colourful history. With eighteen feature films under his belt, and another currently in post-production, Almodovar has gone from strength to strength in his 30-odd year career, creating films that not only entertain, but also educate and captivate.
Whether it’s in his depiction of pain and loss in All About My Mother, the extremes of human passion in The Skin I Live In or sexual abuse in Bad Education, Almodóvar is not only celebrated for constantly breaking trends and subverting societal norms, but also idolised for his courageous determination in encouraging freedom in post-Franco era Spain, particularly in his representation of sexuality and strong female figures.
It’s not all seriousness, however, as many of Almodóvar’s most successful films strike a perfect balance between drama and comedy, with the director using outlandish characters (lesbian divas, pregnant nuns and transgendered playboys to name a few), bright colours and madcap, surrealist narratives to infuse much-needed laughs into the dark and create his own trademark style that makes his films instantly recognisable.
That trademark style has carried Almodóvar well. He’s amassed a collection of awards that would make any fellow director envious, a barrage of muses (from Penélope Cruz to Antonio Banderas) that have reaped massive successes from his direction and continually sees his films in competition at the Cannes Film Festival after forming a strong relationship with Thierry Frémaux, the festival’s director.
There are a few films that represent this world-treasured director’s decades-spanning career in the best possible way, and all six are listed in depth below. For anyone not familiar with Almodóvar (heaven only knows why), then watching one of the films listed below should be enough to lure you into his colourful, yet harsh worlds and make you want to find out all there is to know about this filmmaking icon.
6. Matador (1986)
Famous matador Diego Montes (Nacho Martinez) is forced into early retirement after being savagely attacked by a bull. Left cold and desperate for a fix (masturbating to smut and having sex with countless women isn’t fulfilling enough), Diego becomes a murderer. Things take a turn for the worse when he meets his match in Maria (Assumpta Serna) and a student matador (Antonio Banderas) starts to mirror his path too closely.
The darker side of human sexuality is the main focus in Matador, as characters constantly push and pull against societal boundaries. It’s perhaps Almodóvar’s least mainstream film, but one that perfectly highlights the joy some people find in excess, whether it’s through sex, murder, rape or bullfighting.
Martinez delivers a suitably edgy performance as Diego, but it’s Banderas as the innocent, delusional student matador who makes the real impression, particularly during a scene that has him attempt to rape and kill Diego’s girlfriend, only to ejaculate within seconds and fumble in extracting the knife from his Swiss Army Knife. It’s a delirious, highly sexualised film, but very, very good all the same.
5. Volver (2006)
Raimunda (Penélope Cruz), a dissatisfied mother who’s covering up the death of her husband while running a restaurant in Madrid, and Sole (Lola Dueñas), an isolated loner, are forced to confront their life-long demons when their dead mother (Blanca Portillo) reappears as a ghost offering them guidance and inspiration to take charge of their lives and escape the darkness they’ve been hiding in.
Goofy and surreal, Volver is a perfect mixture of comedy and drama centred on career-making performance by the busty and vivacious Cruz (her cleavage is given precedence in most shots where she’s present). She’s a mother who’s driven to reevaluate her life, and Cruz exacts that perfectly through her performance – one that’s frothy, yet undercut by a sharp edge.
Though it incorporates a range of dark themes (incest, death and loneliness), Volver is a predominantly light-affair that masquerades as a mystery thriller, but ultimately settles into a perfectly measured character study. It’s strikingly beautiful and wonderfully enriching – a film that’s as much about the strength of womanhood as it is about the hope for new beginnings, even after a life previously rooted in darkness.
4. Bad Education (2004)
Two former school friends are brought back together when Ignacio (Gael García Bernal) delivers a script to up-and-coming filmmaker Enrique Goded (Fele Martínez). The script, which recounts their troubled childhood together, inspires Enrique’s next film. But, as production starts, both Enrique and Ignacio are forced to confront their repressed childhood, resulting in some enlightening discoveries.
Arguably Almodóvar’s darkest film, Bad Education draws influence from the directors own experiences at Catholic school where child abuse was taking place regularly. It’s a dark tale that explores, through hard-hitting and vivid flashbacks (a scene soundtracked to “Moon River” is the most noteworthy) the effects abuse has on the mind, how people go about their subsequent lives and the hatred they’ll always feel towards their tormentors.
Bernal anchors the film with a deeply seductive, yet damaged performance that allows us to understand Ignacio’s tortured existence – a shell of a man who has never truly grown up and escaped his troubled background through questionable means such as prostitution and dress-up. His chemistry with Martínez makes the obscure relationship Ignacio shares with Enrique all the more believable. Bad Education is harsh and sharp, yet strangely hopeful.
3. Women On The Verge Of A Nervous Breakdown (1998)
Pepa (Camen Maura) enters into a meltdown after Ivan (Fernando Guillen) puts a stop to their affair. Desperate to understand why, she contacts his wife (Julieta Serrano) and son (Antonio Banderas), who are as clueless as she is. In the meantime, her friend, Candela (Maria Barranco), seeks refuge from the police after falling in love with a Shiite terrorist.
Driven by a brilliant, over-the-top performance from regular Almodóvar star Maura, Women On The Verge Of A Nervous Breakdown is as barmy as its title suggests, and is all the better for it. Much of the action is set inside Pepa’s wonderfully futuristic apartment (credit must be heaped on the production design and cinematography) as the characters fall over one another in spectacular fashion.
From a gun brandishing to drugging through gazpacho, this is a film that’s light in tone, fast in pace and very, very funny. Each actor runs away with Almodóvar’s sharp, back-and-forth writing, with Banderas and Barranca delivering the best performances amongst a solid supporting cast. This one is a camp blast.
2. Talk To Her (2002)
Marco (Javier Cámara) is a travel writer who has formed a deep relationship with famous matador Lydia (Rosaria Flores). When she’s left in a coma after a brutal attack, Marco crosses paths with Benigno (Dario Grandinetti), a nurse who cares for fellow patient Alicia (Leonor Watling). As the two bond over their similarities, Marco starts to suspect that there may be something untoward about Benigno’s newest obsession.
More gentle and softly paced than, say, All About My Mother and Bad Education, Talk to Her is the story of an unlikely relationship between two men and how their dedication to the women in their lives draws them together. It contains a few shocks, mainly as flashbacks reveal curious details about Marco and Benigno’s lives, but it’s a remarkably low-key, mature affair – one that’s far more interested in the more subtle moments.
It’s Almodóvar through-and-through though, only more toned down to compliment the narrative. The direction is more relaxed and production design stunning, with beautiful, yet homely colours that add light to the bond between Marco and Benigno. It’s all powered by uniformly brilliant performances from the entire cast and a soundless excerpt titled “Shrinking Love” that leaves nothing to the imagination.
1. All About My Mother (1999)
Driven to reconnect with her long-lost ex-husband after the unexpected death of their seventeen-year-old son Esteban (Eloy Azorín), Manuela (Cecilia Roth) leaves her life behind and heads to Barcelona. There she finds herself caught up in other peoples’ lives, including a pregnant nun with AIDS (Penélope Cruz) and an ageing actress in need of help (Marisa Parades).
Featuring a stand-out ensemble cast, all of whom deliver terrific performances, All About My Mother is not only one of Almodóvar’s most successful films (it was his first to be screened in competition at the Cannes Film Festival, where it won him the Best Director award), but also one of his most thought-provoking and emotionally resonant offerings about a woman’s search for a cure to her heartbreak.
With a narrative that delves deep into the emotionally damaged human psyche and covers such topics as AIDS, death and the power of motherhood, the film is a rich tapestry bathed in beautiful imagery and a captivating honesty that is likely to have a massive impact on those audience members struggling in the wake of a tragedy, or those simply looking to discover a rare treasure.
This article was originally posted on HeyUGuys.