My first exposure to the Spanish director Pedro Almodovar happened when I was taking Spanish classes in high school. We were being forced to sit through another boring Spanish instructional video, when our kooky teacher confessed, “If you want to watch a good Spanish movie, check out a film called Mujeres al Borde de un Ataque de Nervios. I can’t show it in class, because it’s kind of naughty, but you should rent it. Trust me. Just don’t tell your parents that I’m the one who told you to…”
As luck would have it, we had a pretty great video store in my small hometown, and they had a copy of this film on VHS–the title in English translates to Women On the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown (1988). I’m not sure I totally understood the film at the time, but it definitely left an impression on me.
Enough of an impression, that in the years that followed I’ve checked out almost all of Almodovar’s films, and he has become one of my favorite directors. Most of his films feature colorful sets, fantastic details, and larger-than-life characters—and his 1999 film All About My Mother does not disappoint on this front. The plot is pure melodrama so I won’t go into everything that happens, but in a nutshell: a grieving single mother, a pregnant HIV-positive nun, and a witty transgender prostitute form an unlikely family. There is also a fantastic monologue delivered late in the film about the literal cost (in dollars) of being an “authentic” woman.
And boy does Almodovar love women. Most of his films focus on the lives of funny, strong, put-upon women and their various friends, families, enemies and lovers. And even though Talk to Her (2002) tells the story of two women lying in comas at the hospital (both tended to by the men who love them) these female personalities dominate the movie in flashbacks. I will warn the viewer though, while a lot of this film is beautiful and whimsical, there are some difficult passages involving bull-fighting and an (implied) moral transgression that might be hard for some to watch. However, if you’re not one to shy away from challenging films then this one should spark debate.
With his next film Bad Education (2004), Almodovar made the lives of men the central focus of his narrative, and cast a young Gael Garcia Bernal as his femme fatale. The set up is simple: two childhood friends are re-united, but one of them may not be who he says he is. From there things spiral out into a meta-fictional murder mystery, with a darker tone than in his three previous films.
Volver (2006) is probably my favorite of his films to date. While Almodovar’s films tend to swing wildly between comedy/farce and melodrama/tragedy, Volver somehow hits the sweet spot right in the middle of all four genres, with an added dose of magical realism. It’s a total joy to watch, which is really saying something since the story touches on murder, adultery, incest, malignant tumors, ghosts, and Penelope Cruz’s derriere. But maybe that’s the magic of Pedro Almodovar’s films? He’s able to take dark themes and surround them with bright colors, warm characters, and screwball humor—and really, is there anything better than that?
If you’re interested in giving this director a try, we have a dozen different films for you to choose from (Broken Embraces is another personal favorite) and we also have a documentary and books on his work.
So how about you, dear reader? Are you a fan of Pedro Almodovar, or do you have a director you’re particularly fond of?
PS – About a year ago I revisited Women on the Verge… with a friend who was in that same Spanish class, and it’s still a super fun movie. I can also see why it would not have been an appropriate film for us to watch in class.