How Pedro Almodóvar’s Vibrant Filmography Tells A Darker Story Of Spain’s Traumatic Past
When he began his career in the 1970s, Spain’s most famous filmmaker Pedro Almodóvar quickly became the poster boy representing Spain’s transformation from a 40-year dictatorship to a modern capitalist society. Military dictator General Francisco Franco had long closed Spain’s film school, and so Almodóvar’s early irreverently comic films were seen as signs, abroad at least, that Spain had moved on. He collaborated with Spanish fringe artists in an eclectically creative environment, the so-called La Movida, which has been likened to Andy Warhol’s The Factory. Yet Almodóvar’s frivolity has always felt political. What makes his films distinctive is his ability to combine audacious, eye-catching visuals and outlandish stories in a way that is both entertaining and thought-provoking.
Almodóvar struggled to finance his early films (he described them as having five children by five different fathers), hence he founded his own production company El Deseo (Spanish for ‘desire’) with his brother Agustín in 1986. Their first international breakthrough came with Oscar-nominated screwball comedy-inspired Women On The Verge Of A Nervous Breakdown in 1988. Commercial success led some to claim that Almodóvar had sold out. Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! (1989), a film in which a woman falls in love with her kidnapper, suggested otherwise. Other awards followed, including Oscars for Best Foreign Language Film for All About My Mother (1999) and Best Screenplay for Talk To Her (2002).
Although from the mid-1990s ‘Almodramas’ (a drama of emotions told in Almodóvar style) have dominated most of his output, his comic streak is very much present in everything he does, challenging the prevailing idea that he has suddenly turned serious. And the existence of different Almodóvar styles – even within individual films – means any list of favourites becomes a deeply personal choice.
Almodóvar’s early insistence that he wanted to make films as if Franco had never existed meant that for decades his films were set in a present that was relentlessly optimistic. This reluctance to address the dictatorship and civil war directly resulted in films that drew attention to them stealthily, either through the exploration of personal grief or via allusions to other traumatic histories such as those of Argentina under General Videla or the Bosnian Civil War. It is not until the opening of Live Flesh (1997), set in Madrid in 1970, that he begins to address Spain’s painful history. His most haunting return to the past is Bad Education (2004), a noirish story of child sex abuse at a religious school during the dictatorship and the subsequent cover-up in democratic Spain.
In 2018, Almodóvar was executive producer on The Silence Of Others (directed by Robert Bahar and Almudena Carracedo), a documentary about the struggles of victims of the dictatorship to seek justice. His most recent film, Parallel Mothers (2021), fictionalises this and other stories to show the continuing effects of such traumatic pasts on the lives of the protagonists. If ‘desire’ is the name of Almodóvar’s production company and the term often associated with his cinema, ‘silence’ (the working title for his 2016 film Julieta) is equally important.
With Parallel Mothers, Almodóvar has finally spoken unequivocally about Spain’s traumatic past – a past that needs addressing so that, like the mothers in the story (played by Penélope Cruz, Academy Award-nominated for her performance, and Milena Smit), the country can finally move on.
5 Pedro Almodóvar Films To Watch Now
- The Law Of Desire (1987)
- Women On The Verge Of A Nervous Breakdown (1988)
- Talk To Her (2002)
- Bad Education (2004)
- Pain And Glory (2020)
Ana María Sánchez-Arce is the author of The Cinema Of Pedro Almodóvar. She writes on contemporary literature and film at teaches at Sheffield Hallam University in the UK