Almodóvar, Pedro: 1951

views updated

Pedro Almodóvar: 1951: Filmmaker

As notorious as he is notable, Pedro Almodóvar, long Spain's reigning king of film, has taken center stage as one of the world's most successful and original directors. His art, borne out of a childhood of bleak villages and Catholic repression, took shape during "la movida," Spain's cultural revolution that followed the fall of General Francisco Franco, the country's fascist dictator who ruled for 36 years. Even as he progressed from short films made with a hand-held Super 8 camera to Academy Award-winning features, Almodóvar has maintained a distinctive style: surreal sets awash in ultra-bright colors; ferociously independent characters that don't push the limits of convention but barrel through them; and outrageous storylines rampant with sexuality, hedonism, humor, and kitsch. He was once quoted in Film Comment as saying, "for the individual [passion] is undeniably the only motor that gives sense to life." It is also, undeniably, the motor that drives Almodóvar. Despite the eccentricities, his films still somehow manage to be familiar enough to stir the heart of his audience. This is Almodóvar's magic.

Pedro Almodóvar Caballero was born on September 25, 1951 in Calzada de Calatrava, a small dusty village in southwestern Spain. On Almodóvar is quoted as describing his birth town as "a land so hard where there was no understanding of colour. Maybe that is why I use so many colours in my films." His father, Antonio Almodóvar, worked at a gas station. On the side he made wine which he sold to supplement the family's meager income. His mother, Francisca Caballero, was a homemaker who ruled her house with an iron fist. Almodóvar suffered the possessiveness of his mother along with two older sisters, María Jesús and Antonia, and a younger brother, Agustín. Her dominance would come to influence Almodóvar's work. "As a result of having seen my mother fight it out always, it's the women who end up running life in my films," he told Vanity Fair.

Escaped Abuse Through Films

When he was eight years old, Almodóvar and his family moved to a small rural village in the cold mountainous region of Extremadura in Eastern Spain. There, under pressure from his mother, Almodóvar taught local children how to read. By ten, his intelligence had earned him a scholarship to an all boys Catholic school. It was much less than a blessing. At the school his spirit was dampened by the repressive moral strictures imposed by the church and his trust was broken by a priest who sexually abused him. He told Time that his Catholic education was "full of hypocrisy," concluding, "you can't learn by being terrorized." He found his escape at a movie theater not far from the school. "[There] I reconciliated myself with the world, my world," he is quoted on

At a Glance . . .

Born September 25, 1951, Calzada de Calatrava, Spain; son of Antonio Almodóvar, a gas station attendant and Francisca Caballero, a homemaker. Religion: raised Catholic.

Career: Director, writer, and producer of films. Administrator, Telefonica, Madrid, Spain, 1970-1980; singer, Almodóvar and McNamara, 1980s; actor, Los Goliardos, 1980s; writer and columnist as Patty Diphusa, La Luna, 1980s.

Awards: Silver Toucan for the Best Director, Rio de Janeiro, 1987; New Generation Award Association of Critics of Los Angeles, 1987; Award of the Association of Theater Critics of New York, 1988; Orson Welles Award, Best Director, Foreign Language Film, 1989; Silver Ribbon Award, Best Director, Italy, 1989; David di Donatello Award, Best Director Rome, 1989; National Award of Cinematic Art, Spain, 1989; Best Director, Festival of Gramado, Brazil, 1992; César, France, 1993; the decoration of Arts and Humanities, French Ministry of Education and the Arts, 1995; Gold Medal for Merit in the Fine Arts, Spanish Government, 1998; honorary César, France, 1999. Best Director, Cannes Film Festival, 1999; Best Movie of the Year, San Sebastian Film Festival, Spain, 1999; Best European Film of the Year, European Film Awards, 1999; Best European Director, European Film Awards, 1999; Golden Globe, Best Foreign Language Film, 2000; Seven Goyas, including the Premio Goya, Best Director, 2000; César, Best Foreign Language Film, France, 2000; Guldbagge Award, Best Foreign Language Film, Sweden, 2000; Academy Award, Best Foreign Language Film, 2000; BAFTA Award, Best Foreign Language Film, 2000; David Lean Award, Best Director, 2000; Premio Sant Jordi de Cinematografía, 2000; German Movie Award, Best Foreign-Language Film, 2000. Honorary Doctorate, University of Castilla-La Mancha, Spain, 2001.

Addresses: Home Madrid, Spain. Office El Deseo, SA, C/Francisco Navacerrado, 24, 28028, Madrid, Spain, (34) (91) 724-8199, [email protected].

Barely seventeen, Almodóvar moved to Madrid on his own. He wanted to make movies, but it was 1968 and because Franco was still in power, Spain's official School of Cinematic Arts was shuttered. Almodóvar would have to learn filmmaking on his own. Without money, he settled for a variety of odd jobs from making crafts to selling used items at flea markets. When he landed an administrative position at the state-run telephone company, he finally earned enough money to buy a small Super 8 camera. During the day he was part of Spain's burgeoning middle class. According to his biography on, this social class with "[i]ts dramas and its misery was a goldmine," for Almodóvar's future works.

At night Almodóvar found another goldmine of inspiration in the Madrid movement of the early 1980s known as "la movida," literally the action. Almodóvar described that time to Newsweek International. "It was an explosion of life, the rebirth of joie de vivre, the younger generation seeking pleasure as its immediate objective, the legitimacy of all political choices and the loss of fear of the police." Almodóvar, the country boy from rural Spain, was at the center of the action. Wielding his Super 8 he made short films with titles like "Two Whores or a Love Story that ends in Marriage" and "Sex Comes, Sex Goes." These films reveled in sexualitya complete antithesis to the repressive morality imposed by Franco. He also brought homosexuality, including his own, out of the closet and into the Spanish consciousness. When not filming, the prolific Almodóvar wrote a sham autobiography under the pseudonym Patty Diphusa, international porn star. In Spanish, patidifusa means "flabbergasted." He also performed in drag in a wildly popular underground punk band, acted with an avant garde theater group, and wrote screenplays that would later become his films.

Broke Taboos with Early Films

In 1980 Almodovar released his first feature film, Pepi, Luci, Bom, and Other Girls on the Heap. Shot on weekends and vacations, it took over a year and a half to make. Its screening at the San Sebastian Film Festival, Spain's answer to Cannes and Sundance, elicited shock and disgust from mainstream audiences. With wild antics and oversexed characters, Almodóvar's first film foreshadowed his work to come. In 1982's Labyrinth of Passion, a sex-crazed bisexual pop star who hates the sun, the gay son of an emperor, and a young victim of incest and rape, seek pleasure and freedom in Madrid. 1983's Dark Habits is set in a convent of lesbian, drug-using nuns. This film brought Almodovar international exposure when it was screened at film festivals in Venice and Miami. Back home, his films got his mother exposure too. According to, "the neighbours complained to her every time Pedro made a film, which was seen as controversial amongst the Calatrava neigh-bours." His mother didn't get involved in the controversy, quite simply, by refusing to see any of his films. Still, she remained supportive of her son and even appeared in four of his movies.

In 1984 Almodóvar struck box-office fame in Spain when What Have I Done to Deserve This? became one of the top grossing films of the year. Again quirky characters and plots abound including a glue-sniffing housewife who murders her husband with a ham bone. Just for fun there is a subplot involving a scheme to forge Hitler's diaries and a promiscuous son who has affairs with his classmate's fathers. Two years later he repeated this success with Matador. Its campy mix of sex, murder, bullfighting, and religious repression garnered Almodovar cult status in international film circles. The film also found art house success in the United States.

In 1987, along with his brother Agustín, Almodóvar started his own film company, El Deseo. The following year, with the release of Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, he earned his greatest success to date. The film brought Almodóvar's distinctive style to the masses. Drenched in primary colors, it centers on a strong ensemble of female actors led by Almodóvar's then muse, Carmen Maura. She plays a pregnant Madrid soap opera actress whose married lover dumps her by answering machine. Through her ensuing loneliness, she manages to befriend her lover's ex-wife, the son she didn't know her lover had, and his fiancée. Along the way, they are joined by two police officers and everyone partakes of a drug-laced gazpacho.

Wacky, irreverent, and a bit absurd, Women on the Verge nonetheless manages to touch on themes close to the hearts of women everywherelove, loss, loneliness. It helped establish Almodóvar as a women's director. A 1999 article in Time he was described as, "the man who loves women, who understands them, who writes women's roles that any actress would die or kill for." Almodóvar explained, " I do prefer to work with women. Maybe that's because when I was young, I was surrounded by strong women, real fighters. This was in La Mancha, a very machista and conservative region. There, the man is a king sitting on his throne. And the women are like the prime minister; they are the ones who govern the house, resolve the problems." Spanish women are thankful to Almodóvar for bringing this out in his films. Penelope Cruz, one of Almodóvar's regular actors, told Time International, "When Pedro shoots, everybody wants to see especially these 40-and 50-year-old womenthey cried when they saw him. They'd come up to him in tears and tell him how much he's changed their lives." Women on the Verge changed his life too. The film received over 50 awards internationally including the Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Language Film. In Hollywood, where the bottom line is always the dollar, Almodóvar also proved his merit as a moneymaker. The movie earned $2.5 million dollars in the first ten weeks of its U.S. release becoming North America's most financially successful foreign language film.

Showed No Stop To His Creativity

The 1990s ushered in a slew of Almodóvar hits Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! debuted in 1990, High Heels in 1991, Kika in 1993, The Flower of My Secret in 1995, and Live Flesh in 1997. His style had matured with his characters showing more restraint, despite plots as crazy as anything Almodóvar had created earlier including a disgruntled daughter who marries her mother's ex-lover, a mental patient who kidnaps a porn star in the hopes that she will fall in love with him, and a man in love with a prostitute who is sent to jail for shooting a police officer who turns out to be the prostitute's husband. Almodóvar told Time the source of these wild tales. "Cinema you can learn by yourself," he told Time. "But the stories must come from inside you. When I am writing something, I have the feeling that I am really reading something, and that I have to keep on writing to find out what is going to happen next." What happened next is that the stories that he had created and made into films reaped dozens of prestigious film awards and created a new genre of filmmakingthe Almodóvar style.

In 2001 Almodóvar reached the height of his career with the critically and popularly acclaimed film, All About My Mother. Again the plot is delightfully complex and the characters endearingly eccentric. A mother loses her teenage son in a car accident following a play. She then goes off in search of the boy's father, a transvestite prostitute who has impregnated a young nun and infected her with HIV. Through her mourning, the mother pulls together an unlikely sorority including the young nun, the actress who had starred in the play she had seen with her son before the accident, the actress's drug addicted lesbian lover, and a philosophical transsexual. They are the quintessential abnormal family that is the norm of Almodóvar's films. Yet, with his deft touch, the characters speak to the audience, sharing the themes of family, life, loss, love, and friendship. It is a story anyone can relate to even if there is nary a transsexual in their life. The film also spoke to international film critics. All About My Mother earned nearly 100 awards. It was the star at Cannes, San Sebastian, and countless other film festivals. It gained best film and best director awards at the French Cesar's, Britain's Academy of Film and Television Awards, the Goya's, and in the ultimate film acclaim, scored the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film.

Following his Oscar win, Almodóvar received the congratulations of King Juan Carlos of Spain and Spain's prime minister, Jose Maria Aznar. However, for a man who despite his kinky films is a firm believer in home, family, and country, he wanted to return to the village of his parents to share his prize. With Oscar in hand, Almodóvar was hailed by the villagers who once derided his films. "This is not Calzada de Calatrava, this is Pedro Almodóvar's town," one woman was quoted on

In 2002 Almodóvar began work on Speak to Her, a film centering on the friendship between a female bullfighter and a ballerina. He already has completed the script for his following movie, Bad Education. He is also flirting with the idea of making an English-language film. When at 17 he fled his rural roots for the country's urban capital, it was with "the intention of becoming Madrid's most modern person," he told Vanity Fair. With dozens of films to his credit, hundreds of awards, and numerous books and film courses devoted to his body of work, Almodóvar has not only become Madrid's most modern person, he has become one of the world's most modern icons.

Selected filmography

Pepi, Luci, Bom y Otra Chicas del Monton (Pepi, Luci, Bom and Other Girls on the Heap), 1980.

Laberinto del Pasiones (Labyrinth of Passion), 1982.

Entre Tinieblas (Dark Habits), 1983.

Que He Hecho Yo a Para Mercerer Esto (What Have I Done to Deserve This? ), 1984.

Matador, 1985.

Ley del Deseo, (The Law of Desire) ), 1987.

Mujeres al Borde de un Ataque de Nervios (Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown), 1988.

Atame! (Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! ), 1989.

Tacones Lejanos (High Heels), 1991.

Kika, 1993.

La Flore de mi Secreto (The Flower of My Secret), 1995.

Carne Tremula (Live Flesh), 1997.

Todo Sobre Mi Madre (All About My Mother), 1999.



The Economist, April 1, 2000, p. 48.

Film Comment, November/December, 1988, p.13.

GQ, November 1989, p. 104.

Interview, April 1996, p. 48.

Newsweek International, May 8, 2000, p. 21.

Time, January 30, 1989, p. 68; November 15, 1999, p.100.

Time International, December 13, 1999, p. 48.

Vanity Fair, April 1999, p.182.

Washington Post, June 30, p. G1.


Candace LaBalle