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August 10, 2007

A film festival
in a box

Almodóvar set has all but two of his best

They say that the first step in dealing with an addiction is to recognize it. So let me come clean: I am addicted--hopelessly, madly, insatiably and irrevocably--to the films of Pedro Almodóvar. But I have no desire to be cured.

Pedro Almodóvar Caballero was born on September 24, 1951 in the rural Calzada de Calatrava area. His birthplace in the region of La Mancha--made famous in the story of Don Quixote--is apt since quixotry and going against the grain have been his hallmarks as a writer, producer and director.

For more than 20 years Almodóvar has only made films that he has wanted to. He has refused to sell out to the pressures of Hollywood, in a time when many European filmmakers have found it harder to work under their own conditions, avoiding the onslaught of American cinema on their continent.

His unique voice has spoken eloquently for the outcasts and misfits of society--women, gays, lesbians, transgendered people, victims of sexual and other abuse, the lonely and isolated. Yet, for all the dark geographies that his characters traverse, Almodóvar’s kaleidoscopic universes are bright, funny, celebratory and so drenched in humanity that they are not simply a slice of life, they are life itself.

Openly gay himself, Almodóvar’s life’s experiences have always filtered into his work, from his impoverished childhood to his Catholic education. He also came into adolescence and adulthood under trying times in Spain, particularly for artists.

At 16, Almodóvar moved Madrid. After completing his compulsory military service the country boy, whose family was in the winemaking business, was immersed in the culture and milieus of the urban landscapes. His lack of financial resources made it difficult for him to pursue his dream of becoming a filmmaker. Moreover, the fascist takeover of Spain by dictator Franco had resulted in the closing of the National School of Cinema. The beauty of Almodóvar’s genius is that he is completely instinctive and self-taught.

Almodóvar has won two Academy Awards: Best Foreign Language Film for All About My Mother in 1999 and Best Screenplay for Talk to Her in 2002. Those two awards don’t even begin to acknowledge the amazing body of works he has created and the utter aesthetic and narrative mastery of his genius.

Thankfully for cinephiles and Almódovar junkies all over, Sony Home Entertainment has released a boxed DVD set of eight of his films with a bonus disc of extras including a documentary with actors, writers, producers, and others who know how he works and what his works are all about.

The “Viva Pedro” set, a selection of some of his most acclaimed movies, doesn’t include the masterpieces High Heels and Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! Beggars can’t be choosers, though, and this homage to Almodóvar is a great start to future sets of his other films.

The other downside to the boxed set is that we never really hear from the maestro himself--except in commentary tracks for Bad Education and Talk to Her. Perhaps that is an astute and typically Almodóvar decision, to let the films speak for themselves.

The best upside for movie buffs is the DVD debuts of Matador (1986), Law of Desire (1987) and Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown (1988), early art-house hits that put Almodóvar on the international cinematic map.

Here is a short appreciation of each of the eight films in what some have called a film festival in a box.

Matador (1986)

Almodóvar has never sidestepped taboos, yet even for him Matador takes on the stuff of human desires that is lurid, shocking and so dark. But, in his able hands, these taboos become explorations of humanity that few would dare take on, and even fewer would succeed in showing that the darkness we see in others is only a few steps away from what lies within each one of us.

Diego, an ex-matador, now trains young bullfighters. Maria, a criminal lawyer, hides a secret as dark as Diego’s. Both need violence to achieve true sexual release. When they meet, the eventuality of their fate becomes obvious and Almodóvar handles this nexus between sex and death so beautifully that Diego and Maria are not psychopaths anymore, rather contemporary version of doomed lovers like Romeo and Juliet or Alexander and Hephaestion.

Antonio Banderas plays Angle, a troubled, repressed virgin whose own struggles with sex and violence are epic.

Law of Desire (1987)

Long before Felicity Huffman’s brave and awe inspiring turn in TransAmerica, there was Carmen Maura’s amazing role as a transgendered stage actor Tina Quintero in Law of Desire. Pablo, her brother, is a gay stage director who falls in love with all the wrong men. As the film opens, Pablo is madly in love with Juan, a bisexual who cannot reciprocate Pablo’s love as much as the director would like. Enter Antonio, a stalker who tries to take over Pablo’s life with his obsessive love and psychotic possessiveness.

When Pablo seeks to be free of Antonio’s suffocating desires, Antonio goes on a series of misadventures, making sure that no one’s life will ever be the same ever again.

Maura is divine as she is in all the works she has collaborated on with Almodóvar. Banderas as the crazed lover Antonio is deviously maniacal, playing this villain with subtlety and a tragic air that is endearing. The film proves that in matters of the heart, when it comes to the deepest of human desires there are no laws, none that make any sense at least.

Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown (1988)

His first true international success, here Almodóvar cements his reputation as one of the greatest directors of women’s voices. Pepa’s lover Ivan decides to abandon her, forcing this woman scorned to go on a journey to find out why. Along the way she confronts her lover’s wife, his son and a slew of other characters all adding to her looming nervous breakdown.

She’s not the only one: Ivan’s wife Lucia, having been through several of his affairs before, seems to be having the mother of all breakdowns; his new woman thinking she is above a breakdown finds out exactly how wrong she is; and Pepa’s friend Candela, caught up in a farcical tale of terrorism, has obvious reasons for her own breakdown.

The film brought Almodóvar his first Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Language Film. Maura is simply on fire throughout the film, turning in a brave and feisty performance. As Carlos, Ivan and Lucia’s son, the young Antonio Banderas plays the cad with charm to spare. Julieta Serano as Lucia the left behind wife is superb. The comic timing is delectable, making this one of the best cinematic slapstick farces of all time.

The Flower of My Secret (1995)

The inimitable Marisa Paredes plays Leo Macias, a successful romance novelist whose life is filled with personal and professional crises. Her marriage is dissolving, her writing juices have dried up, her mother and sister are having their own breakdowns, her best friend is having an affair with her husband, and her editor longs to love her and be loved in return.

The Flower of My Secret is a softer film dealing with love and loss and the longing for what once was. Lesser known, this is still a film filled with the grace and beauty that have come to be synonymous with Almodóvar’s filmmaking.

Live Flesh (1997)

Javier Bardem plays David, a paraplegic ex-cop, in a twisted tale of unrequited love and revenge. Victor, accused of putting David in the wheelchair, needs to restore his name after spending a long time in prison for his alleged actions. Sancho, David’s police partner, is also hiding some dark secrets. Add to this mix the women in these three men’s lives and fire is sure to follow, literally and metaphorically.

As the characters burrow deep into their intersecting lives to get at the truth the story takes twists and turns that keep one hooked to the screen. The characters find their redemption, reach their truths, but not before each going through their respective trials by fire.

The film not only deals with disability but also tackles the thorny issue of domestic violence. Bardem is stunning here, an early foreshadowing of his Oscar-nominated turn in Before Night Falls.

All About My Mother (1999)

Cecilia Roth plays the eponymous mother Manuela, haunted by her past and hurled into an uncertain and frantic present by the untimely death of her only son. As she goes on a quest to find the past to bring peace to her present and future, her life intersects with a menagerie of colorful characters who all have a lesson to teach. There’s Lola, a transvestite who holds the keys to many secrets in the film; a pregnant, HIV-positive nun who finds family in those two exist on the margins of society; an aging lesbian who is one of Spain’s finest stage actresses but is indirectly responsible for the all-too-soon death of Manuela’s son Esteban; and Agrado, a colorful transsexual prostitute, post-operative from the waist up and pre-operative from the waist down.

The film is largely Almodóvar’s homage to family in all its shapes and forms, with all its warts and foibles. As he weaves his magical tale full of grief and gravity, we come away at the end so reaffirmed by the notion that we can find family in the most unexpected of places, in the most extraordinary moments of our lives. The ending proves beyond the shadow of a doubt that for all his edgy storytelling and for all his provocative film making, at his core Almodóvar is a sentimentalist as traditional as Frank Capra, as family-values-oriented as Disney.

All About My Mother won an Oscar and Golden Globe for Best Foreign Language Film in addition to the Best Director at Cannes.

Talk to Her (2002)

A sad yet utterly uplifting tale about unrequited love, Talk to Her features two men dealing with their respective lovers, both of who are lying in deep comas. Alicia, a modern dancer, and Lydia, a matador, leave two men who must form a bond in order to get through the ordeal. Benigno is Lydia’s nurse and deeply in love with her while Marco was just falling in love with Lydia when she was gored in the bullfighting rink.

Using some wonderful segments of modern dance to comment upon the stories being told here, Almodóvar celebrates art in all its forms for its ability to comment so vividly on the human condition. Here, like in Bad Education, there is a film within the film. Almodóvar has concocted a black and white silent so amazing that it could have won awards in its own right.

The film builds to a series of climaxes that are so shocking yet so utterly believable that the audience is left with mouth agape and eyes flooded with tears. Musical maestro Caetano Veloso has a cameo at a party where he sings so beautifully that it alone is worth the price of admission.

Bad Education (2004)

Perhaps his most complexly structured film, Almodóvar tackles issues of childhood sexual abuse at the hands of Catholic priests in a mature and poignant manner. Ignacio and Enrique, two childhood friends, grow apart because of life’s circumstances and the horrible cruelty of the church-run school where they originally met. Into their adult lives enters the character of Juan who adds to the complex machinations of the plot. There is a film within the film here adding to the suspense and layers upon layers of storytelling going on. Almodóvar, as in many of his films, suggests that the past has a powerful hold on us and forever defines who we are, what we become.

Bad Education belongs to the amazing Mexican actor Gael Garcia Bernal (Babel, Amorres Peros, Y Tu Mama Tambien) who plays three roles in this labyrinthine story. From a young man with devious intentions to a troubled transvestite Bernal inhabits his roles with grace, humor and top-of-the-line histrionics. This performance was Oscar worthy as is the entire film. Javier Camara, one of the leads in Talk to Her, shows up here in a fabulous cameo as a tarty drag queen.

Almodóvar’s writing and directing is so mature here as he weaves a complicated tale with such utter humanity, even for the villains of the church who ruin Ignacio and Enrique’s wonderful, innocent lives and love. The film requires multiple viewings to get at Almodóvar’s subtleties of movie making and his utter genius of storytelling.

A rare treat on this DVD is a commentary track by the director. It gives audiences a rare glimpse into the machinations of Almodóvar’s mind both as an inimitable filmmaker and as one of the most humanistic storytellers of all time.

If there is one title in Almodóvar’s oeuvre that defines his legendary body of work it is Law of Desire. Every single film, every plot, and every character invented in his incomparable cinematic mind, struggles with those laws of desire that torment us, fulfill us, keep us alive and make us so utterly human.

In Almodóvar’s universe these laws of desire are all encompassing, all consuming--sometimes in synch with the cosmos at large, often at odds with the machinations of the universe.



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