Pick up the two books and hold one in each hand. Just looking, you can learn a lot. Latin American Melodrama is a slender, grey volume, barely thicker than a child’s school notebook. All About Almodóvar is a hefty tome in garish colours, comparable in girth to a Victorian family Bible. Lift it for any length of time and you court Repetitive Strain Injury. Read both volumes to the end and you may feel mentally lop-sided. In one book, a vast and vitally important tradition that gave form to the dreams of an entire continent – all boiled down to less than 200 pages. In the other, the lively but minor talent of Pedro Almodóvar, a director whose inflated reputation has turned him into a one-man critical industry – of which this hypertrophic beast of a book (all 500 pages) is the latest and most ominous example.

It’s not that either book is a bad job per se. In both, a group of academic specialists have pooled their insights and obsessions. Some have, predictably, brought more into the pool than others: Linda Williams, in All About Almodóvar, has miraculously opened up High Heels (Tacones lejanos, 1991), a film that had resolutely left me cold for two decades; Catherine L. Benamou, in Latin American Melodrama, has pulled off the unlikely feat of making Brazilian and Mexican telenovelas sound dull. The difficulty lies in realising just how partial an activity film scholarship is, and how it will inevitably distort our view of the films we see and (more important perhaps) the films we do not see because we never get the chance.

Like virtually any non-Hispanic film buff, my knowledge of Latin American melodrama barely extends beyond that of a passionate outsider. Watching films from its Golden Age in the ’40s and ’50s, I have revelled in their flamboyantly histrionic divas and wildly improbable plots – Dolores del Río in The Other One (La otra, Roberto Gavaldón, 1946), Ninón Sevilla in Aventurera (Alberto Gout, 1949) or Libertad Lamarque in Anxiety (Ansiedad, Miguel Zacarías, 1952). (Gout’s film, at least, gets a perceptive in-depth analysis by Gilberto Perez in the current volume.) I have seen just enough to appreciate the impact such films have had on a contemporary Mexican auteur like Arturo Ripstein. (His The Virgin of Lust [La virgen de la lujuria, 2002] may be the greatest melodrama of the past decade, but he barely rates a mention in this book.) Peering from one volume to the next, I can see the influence of Latin American films on Almodóvar. Or, to be blunt, just how little – in terms of convoluted plots and extravagant divas – the Spanish wunderkind has actually invented.

What I want and need desperately from Latin American Melodrama – and what, in essay after essay, I fail to get – is a broader cultural insight that might put these films in some meaningful context. Some of the pieces, individually, are very fine. Notably, Cid Vasconcelos finds the missing link between old-style melodrama and the post-Cinema Novo films of Arnaldo Jabor in the ’70s. Darlene J. Sadlier (who also edited the volume) offers a rich evocation of Nelson Pereira dos Santos’s 1994 BFI documentary Cinema of Tears (Cinema de lágrimas). A filmmaker and story-teller rather an academic, Pereira dos Santos is adept at portraying film within a wider cultural context – as something that vast numbers of people actually watch. Given the narrow and highly specialised focus of the essays, that is precisely what Latin American Melodrama fails to do.

We are left with tantalising glimpses of the mythic, quasi-religious resonance that melodrama once had for Latin American audiences. Sadlier quotes the critic Jésus Martín-Barbero, who writes:

The stars […] provided the faces, bodies, voices and tones of expression for a people to see and hear themselves. Above and beyond the make-up and the commercial star industry, the movie stars who were truly stars for the people gathered their force from a secret pact that bonded their faces with the desires and obsessions of their publics. (p. 7)

Reading such a description, I am willing – nay, eager – to join the cult, but Latin American Melodrama presents it in terms that only an initiate can understand.

As for the cult of Almodóvar, now well into its third decade, you may or may not want to join it, but is there any escape? Some of the essays in All About Almodóvar have at least the honesty to point out his underlying conservatism, which smoothes over his superficial “outrageousness” and makes it commercially palatable. A perceptive Brad Epps (one of the book’s editors) spots this contradiction as early as Labyrinth of Passion (Laberinto de pasiones, 1982), made when the young Almodóvar was still a poster boy for the hedonistic post-Franco movida. A story of a gay man and a nymphomaniac woman who settle down and form a traditional heterosexual couple, this film embodies Almodóvar’s tendency “to shy away from a wildly irreverent queerness at the very moment at which he and his work were, to many a spectator’s eye, most vigorously associated with it.” (p. 325)

Admiring the director as he does – and having, moreover, a professional interest in promoting Almodóvar as a groundbreaking radical artist – Epps dismisses this plot resolution as ironic. He does, at least, admit that it leaves an audience “titillated with the image of something subversive, without being challenged too strongly.” (p. 329) As a non-believer, I would say this sums up my basic problem with Almodóvar and his entire oeuvre. To put it more plainly, if I see one more film in which jaded urbanites (be they junkies or transsexuals, hookers or housewives) rediscover their traditional rural roots and return to the village – which is what happens in What Have I Done to Deserve This? (Qué he hecho yo para merecer esto?, 1984) and Tie Me Up, Tie Me Down (Átame!, 1990), in The Flower of My Secret (La flor de mi secreto, 1995) and Volver (2006) – I shall scream with a vehemence that a Latin American diva might envy.

We are dealing, though, with a book spawned in the inner sanctum of Almodóvar Studies – where all the scholars concerned are determined to keep the faith. Within the limits set by this whole enterprise, individual writers contribute some valuable work. While I disagree with Andy Medhurst that Almodóvar’s films make him “the pre-eminent queer artist of contemporary times” (p. 125), his point about their specifically Spanish character and context is one that needs to be made. (While no foreign film benefits from being dubbed into English, Almodóvar’s are utterly ruined by it.) A piece on Bad Education (La mala educación, 2004) by Marvin D’Lugo gives long overdue credit to Sara Montiel, the Spanish diva of the ’50s and ’60s who inspired it – and whose persona (both onscreen and off) is infinitely more flamboyant than any that Almodóvar could dream up.

However, my personal high point in All About Almodóvar is Ignacio Oliva’s description of the “mambo taxi” in Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown (Mujeres al borde de un ataque de nervios, 1988). He depicts it as “a miniature, mobile shop of knicknacks that draws on stereotypically Hispanic modes of pastiche and kitsch to depict, ironically, a newly democratic and consumerist Spain.” (p. 392) Which is, incidentally, the best description I’ve ever read of Almodóvar as a whole.

Latin American Melodrama: Passion, Pathos and Entertainment, edited and with an introduction by Darlene J. Sadlier, University of Illinois Press, Urbana and Chicago, 2009.

All About Almodóvar: A Passion for Cinema, edited by Brad Epps and Despina Kakoudaki, University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis and London, 2009.