A stranger to myself
`I've done what I've wanted to do,' says Spanish filmmaker Pedro Almodóvar of his career.
Ensemble female cast: Carmen Maura (left) and Penelope Cruz in Almodóvar's latest "Volver". Photos: Reuters
"This prize really belongs to Pedro... You put so much magic into our lives. Thanks for what you do for women all over the world."
Penelope Cruz accepting the Best Actress Award on behalf of the ensemble female cast of Pedro Almodóvar's "Volver"at the recently concluded Cannes Film Festival.
BY all accounts, Pedro Almodóvar's life is as dramatic as his films. Born in La Mancha region of south central Spain in 1951, he finished high school, moved to Madrid in 1967, got involved in the underground artistic movement, became an active member of an avant-garde theatre group, wrote comic strips and articles for counterculture magazines in the 1970s, and performed with a rock-and-roll band.
By the time he made his first film in 1974, Pedro had discovered Madrid, "a city gone crazy that had clandestine fun under the shadow of the dictatorship (of Francisco Franco) and was getting ready to shift into a rhythm of vertigo as soon as the nightmare was over". He called the super-8 short, "Two Whores" or "A Love Story Which Ends in Marriage".
In the 1980s, films flowed from Pedro's stable at break-neck speed. His debut feature length film, "Pepi, Luci, Bom" and "Other Girls Like Mom" (1980) with uninhibited sex and screwball morality pictured the beginnings of "the golden age of Madrid pop, punk, comics and general frivolity" and combined the rustic with the metropolitan. "Its characters would be knitting in the living room just as they'd go whoring at the sleaziest discos."
"Labyrinth of Passion" (1982) had Antonio Banderas, a Pedro discovery, essaying the role of a gay Islamic terrorist. "In `Labyrinth...' Pepi's point of reference is late 1970s New York trash culture, and `Labyrinth... ' has more to do with the frivolous London pop of the mid-1960s. In both, my preoccupation with the fragility of relationships already appears masked, filling the stories with lonely, lively, self-sufficient girls... "
... I have the impression I still haven't told the story I set out to tell, and I'm not sure if I'll ever be able to tell it, but that's what adventure's all about.
Pedro sees the early 1980s as intrepid years in which time was stretched by its intensity. "We weren't only younger and thinner, but our lack of awareness made us happy to jump headfirst into everything," he writes, in the introduction to his intriguing book, The Patty Diphusa Stories and other writings. "We didn't care about the price of things, and we didn't think about the market. We had no memory; we imitated everything we liked and had a great time doing it. There wasn't the slightest sense of solidarity, nor any political, social or generational feelings, and the more we plagiarised, the more authentic we were. We were pretentious, but our lack of perspective produced the opposite effect. Drugs only showed their playful side and sex was something hygienic..."
Making his mark
Films that followed bore an instantly recognisable Pedro stamp. "Dark Habits" (1983), "a film where I uncover my heart and more boldly embark on a journey along the painful paths of passion"; "What Have I Done To Deserve This?" (1984-85), "my most social picture where I change the universe and the aesthetic"; "Matador" (1985-86), "the most abstract of my films about something absolutely concrete sexual pleasures; a very stylised and very hard film, a tragicomedy in which death is conceived as an element of sexual arousal"; and "Law of Desire" (1986) "a much more naturalistic film that still deals with an abstraction: desire" ... all these films dealt with hyperrealist themes and melodrama, smeared quite generously with black humour, red passion against turbulent landscape.
With each film, Pedro was challenging the audience preconceptions of acceptable conduct. "They aren't moral movies, although in both `Matador' and `Law of Desire', the protagonists have to pay a very high price to satisfy their passions."
In 1987, "Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown" happened. And with it came, in Pedro's own words: "The light comedy, the consecration, the noise, the awards. The saturation." Pedro also became the Spain's arguably the most outrageous and flamboyant export.
It has almost been two decades since. Pedro's reputation and notoriety have both increased with every new film nay, starkly constructed outrageous comedy he has made. Pitchforking him into the top league of contemporary filmmakers are films like "Átame!" (Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! 1989), "High Heels (1991), "Kika" (1994), "The Flower of My Secret", (1995) and "Live Flesh" (1997).
Along the way, many laurels and awards have crossed his path. "All about my Mother" won the Academy award (Best Foreign Language Film) in 1999. Another Academy Award followed for "Talk to Her" (2002) for the best original screenplay.
Recently at Cannes, the tragi-comic ghost tale, "Volver" missed the Palme d'Or and Grand Prix, but won the award for Best Screenplay. As importantly, the jury gave away the Best Actress Award to the entire ensemble female cast of "Volver" lead by the redoubtable Penelope Cruz and Carmen Maura.
Pedro is known for his uncanny ability to extract incredible performances from his actors, especially women. "I think in `Law of Desire', I got the best acting of my career," he confessed in his short essay, "Without Love, Life isn't just Life" (1987). "Carmen Maura did it. She's is shocking in her role as Tina the transsexual... Tina Quintero, thanks to Carmen Maura, is the most complete feminine portrait I have done to date."
Pedro is proud to have made the films his way. "If there's one thing I'm satisfied with, it's that I've done what I've wanted to do. For better or for worse, my path has been of my own choosing; in no case has it been imposed on me. In a country where filmmaking is a miraculous act, I've always decided what film I wanted to make, and have ended up making it. I've had to be a little stubborn at times, but I realise that luck has been with me along with an unconscious sense of opportunity."
At the same time, he can also look at himself and his work rather mysteriously. "On the way back to the living room I saw my reflection in the bathroom mirror," he wrote in La Promoción (1990). "In fact, a stranger had come into my life. That stranger was me... That's how I feel when I or anybody else talks about (my) films ... They all reflect my best and my worst, and in spite of that I have the impression that I still haven't told the story I set out to tell, and I'm not sure if I'll ever be able to tell it, but that's what adventure's all about."
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