Pedro Almodóvar is the cultural symbol par excellence of the restoration of democracy in Spain after nearly 40 years of the right-wing military dictatorship of Francisco Franco. Since Almodóvar’s emergence as a transgressive underground cineaste in the late 1970s and early 1980she has gone on to establish himself as the country’s most important filmmaker and a major figure on the stage of world cinema.
However, it is Almodóvar’s ambivalent relationship with the country of his birth (and where he has made all of his 16 feature films to date) that has proved symptomatic of the complexities surrounding the filmmaker. While subversion of identity is the key subject matter of his cinema, Almodóvar has consistently flirted with his own sense of “Spanish-ness” (most frequently in his recourse to – and resignifying of – the symbolism of the Catholic Church). This has led often to a mixed domestic reception, which takes the form of unconditional acclaim by certain sections of the Spanish media but that has also seen him vilified by conservative critics. Whatever reaction he provokes, there is little doubt that Almodóvar rarely – if ever – inspires indifference.
Like Don Quixote before him, Almodóvar was born in the region of central-southern Spain known as La Mancha. His humble origins, as a member of a large and impoverished family of peasant stock, have left their indelible mark on his work. He often cast his own mother (Francisca Caballero) – possessed of the archetypal wisdom of peasant womanhood – in cameo roles in his movies prior to her death in 1999. Many of his films see their urban-dwelling protagonists return to their ancestral family homes in the country, variously, for refuge or redemption. The rural home town, while at the heart of the Spanish national imaginary – this is a country in which most of the urban population is only one generation away from the feudal pueblo – is an ambiguous Arcadia. His most recent movie Volver (2006) deals directly with the ghosts of the nation’s past in its portrayal of the typical Spanish village. Later, when Almodóvar was eight years-old the family moved to Extremadura in the west of the country where he would receive the brutish education at the hands of the Catholic Church that is reflected in the richly baroque tale of priests and child abuse of La mala educación (2004).
At the end of the 1960s Almodóvar arrived in Madrid. After completing the compulsory military service and spending periods as a hippy in Ibiza and London, he secured a day job as a clerk for the national telephone company Telefónica. It was a position he would maintain for more than a decade, with occasional unpaid leaves of absence to work on his various projects. Indeed, in several of his films we see homages to this period of his life, such as the Madrid skyline in Mujeres al borde de un ataque de nervios (1988), marked by the emblematic red light of the Telefónica clock tower and the pervasive, almost obsessive presence of telephones in almost all his films of the 1980s. Almodóvar has often spoken of how much he learned from listening to the women who surrounded him in the office where he worked. For a filmmaker who had no formal training, he has drawn on his experiences to develop what is almost universally acknowledged as one of his greatest strengths: his ear for the sounds, the rhythms and the dialects of the street, and thus his capacity to direct actors.
Meanwhile by night, and following the death of Franco in November 1975, Almodóvar was steadily becoming the leading figure in Madrid’s flourishing alternative cultural scene that would become known as La Movida. Commencing as a stage hand for the theatre troupe, Los Goliardos – where he met Carmen Maura, the actress who would become his leading lady for the first half of his filmic career – he also performed in a punk rock group, wrote pornographic photo-novels and, significantly, purchased a super-8 camera with which he shot a series of outlandish shorts which guaranteed his burgeoning notoriety. Finally, in 1980 he shot his first feature Pepi, Luci, Bom y otras chicas del montón,a bizarrely ribald chronicle of life on the wilder fringes of the Madrid night-time experience. Pepi, Luci, Bom… wasa film, plagued by financial and technical problems. It took 18 months to shoot and required its director to return to his post at the telephone exchange before it was finally completed. In many ways, it was an inauspicious commencement to Almodóvar’s professional career – the technical limitations and blatant amateurism of the cinematography are evident for all to see – but it also captured the spirit of the times – above all the sense of cultural and sexual freedom – and established Almodóvar as a force with which to be reckoned.
Almodóvar’s career has been plagued by accusations of frivolity. His apparent lack of political commitment contrasted with that of his contemporaries. The end of the dictatorship opened up a dizzying array of political, social and cultural opportunities and the possibility of substantive changes in society seemed real. Just across the border in Portugal – a few hours drive from Madrid – the 1974 revolution had provided what for some was an exemplary means of transforming society. By the same token, the dominant oppositional school of Spanish filmmaking – drawn, with very few exceptions, from the privileged elites – looked towards France and the auteurist tradition and which, in spite of its claims to committed film often seemed devoted to the cinematic essay. Almodóvar’s disavowal of this kind of solemnity would initiate a conflict with the Spanish film establishment that endures to this day, in spite of his international reputation.
Despite the hostility to which he has often been subject at home, Almodóvar has clearly emerged from a particularly Spanish cultural tradition. Much of the criticism that has been levelled at him stems from the alleged influence of Hollywood cinema on his films. Such critics often adopt the discourse of progressive politics – the accusation against Almodóvar is that he has capitulated to cultural imperialism – to defend what is essentially a fairly tiresome and well-worn brand of Spanish nationalism. The reality is that Almodóvar is indeed influenced by North American cinema (which international filmmaker isn’t?) and particularly so in his early work. This influence, however, is scarcely that of “dominant” Hollywood films but rather the underground, transgressive cinema of the early John Waters and Andy Warhol. That said, his numerous stylistic appropriations of Alfred Hitchcock (particularly in Mujeres al borde de un ataque de nervios, but there are many more) and the influence of Douglas Sirk’s melodramas are undeniable elements present in Almodóvar’s work, as he himself is keen to acknowledge. Likewise, his use of music – and the scores to his films are remarkable in their own right – suggests both a global sensibility and an ear for the newest trends close to home. From the post-punk new wave of his early movies to the boleros, the bossa nova and the flamenco of his melodramas and more mature work, Almodóvar’s cinema provides a veritable feast of transnational eclecticism.
The fact remains, however, that the most significant (and yet largely unrecognised) influence is that of the Spanish cinematic tradition that stretches back to the Second Republic of the 1930s. Almodóvar is the direct filmic descendent of Edgar Neville – Spain’s finest director of the 1940s – as well as the absurdist humour of dramaturgs and screenwriters Miguel Mihura and Enrique Jardiel Poncela (all three of whom, incidentally, learned their cinematic trade while working on Spanish-language versions of Hollywood films in the Los Angeles studios of the late 1920s). Likewise, Almodóvar has repeatedly drawn attention to the debt that he owes to Neville’s heir – and the closest Spanish filmmaker to Federico Fellini – the great Luis García Berlanga as well as to the director/actor Fernando Fernán Gómez (who appeared in Almodóvar’s Oscar-winning 1999 movie Todo sobre mi madre).
There is, moreover, another major – and often unremarked upon – cinematic influence on Almodóvar. Luis Buñuel, who went into exile in Mexico in 1939 after Spain’s Civil War is a constant referent for contemporary Spanish cinema. Buñuel, though, has long been associated critically with precisely the elitist pantheon of filmmaking that Almodóvar has rejected (or that has rejected him). Indeed, Buñuel is very often not even considered to be a Spanish cineaste by foreign critics, owing to the fact that much of his best-known work after 1939 was produced outside of the country, particularly in Mexico and France. Nonetheless, there are a number of parallels between the two directors. Both inhabit an ambivalent critical space that defies discursive categories of nominative definition, in which adjectives such as “popular” or “arthouse” are employed to classify and codify filmmaking. Although both directors are often referred to as auteurs, is a little-known fact that Buñuel, whose international reputation comes principally from his surrealist collaborations with Salvador Dalí, was a key figure in the promotion of popular filmmaking during the Second Republic (1931–39). Likewise, Almodóvar – especially in his early work – was the leading exponent of the kind of popular urban comedy very much associated with Madrid in the 1980s. Almodóvar’s 1997 film Carne trémula – interestingly a film that for the first time in his oeuvre had a plot marked by the passage of historical time – quotes directly from Buñuel’s creepily comic 1955 tour de force, Ensayo de un crimen.
The intense, difficult and invariably complex relationship with the country of his birth provides us with the key to understanding the cinema of Almodóvar. The central issue in his films, and it is one with which he engages in a myriad different ways, from his earliest work to his most recent is the question of identity. This key feature of Almodóvar is never more consistently depicted than through the motif of writing. Writing reality into existence (and thereby changing it) through fiction is a means of interrogating all forms of subjectivity and subject formation. One need only note the abundance of characters who adopt multiple pseudonyms, the repeated images of typewriters, the information transmitted through found notes, the eerie presence of ghostwriters.
This critique of the subject extends to all other forms of identity. His refusal to kowtow to the academic exigencies of the Spanish establishment or to indulge in political posturing through his cinema does not mean that Spain is not central to Almodóvar’s subject matter nor that he is uninterested in politics. In much the same way – and in a country where same-sex marriage is now legal – his obsessive concern with the fluidity of genders, the interchangeability of sexual tastes and orientations, his constant interrogation of discrete sexual identities has disappointed certain militant gay activists who, for political reasons, evidently would prefer a clearer – and less ambiguous – definition of sexual identity (and would also like to have seen Almodóvar take a stance in favour of gay rights). The point is an important one, Almodóvar’s characters are never exclusively heterosexual or homosexual, instead they perform their identities and thus are identifiable by what they choose to be at any particular moment. The point is made tellingly in several of his films but a clear example is in his 1986 La ley de deseo. In this film Almodóvar cast the well-known post-operative transsexual (at least to a Spanish audience), Bibí Andersen, as the mother of a child who – to all intents and purposes – has been adopted by an onscreen transsexual played by Carmen Maura. Similarly, Almodóvar is responsible (in this film and others such as the 1982 Laberinto de pasiones) not only for having launched Antonio Banderas’ film career but also for having converted him into a gay icon. In this sense Almodóvar has an affinity with the new queer cinema of the 1980s and 1990s and owes a particular debt – again via Sirk – to Rainer Werner Fassbinder. Although Almodóvar has gone out of his way to disavow the suggestion that he is a gay filmmaker (rather than a filmmaker who just happens to be gay), the content of his films often subtly points up a gay geneology. In Todo sobre mi madre – a film that is essentially a work of mourning of a mother for her son and Almodóvar’s recent loss of his own mother – the intertexual references abound to create a patchwork of literary antecedents that inflects and subverts the forward march of teleological history of facts and figures. This is a text structured around a set of other texts produced by globalised community of gay writers:Federico García Lorca, Truman Capote, Tennessee Williams.
Identity, though, is principally subverted in Almodóvar’s work through the human body. In La flor de mi secreto (1994) and Todo sobre mi madre we see explicit references to the donation and transplant of organs (and Spain is one of the world’s most generous nations in this respect). The common idea that one’s “essence” is contained in the particularity of a single organ (such as a heart) is upended by Almodóvar. Likewise, cloning (Laberinto de pasiones), sex changes (La ley de deseo) and wholesale resuscitation (Hable con ella  – Almodóvar’s most metaphysical film) all make the body the agent of flexibility and change. In Todo sobre mi madre, the transsexual character of Agrado (Antonia San Juan) delivers an ostensibly comic speech concerning the surgical alterations performed upon her own body, which she pointedly claims are what make her who she really is. The discourse surrounding artifice and reality is, of course, at the heart of Miguel de Cervantes Don Quixote, the key text in the Spanish literary canon. Almodóvar and Cervantes not only undermine Christian notions of the body as an essential and inviolable representation of being but they also subvert identity by proposing the body as a site of imitation. One of the characters in Tacones lejanos (1991) is a magistrate whose investigation leads him to impersonate (in drag) a fading 1960s cabaret star (played by Marisa Paredes), while also assuming the identity of a drug dealer. The fact that the character is played by one the most important figures of the Spanish pop scene, Miguel Bosé (who, in the past, has modelled himself upon David Bowie) adds an additional star quality to the dimensions of the character. In a melodrama clearly related to Sirk’s 1959 Imitation of Life, the film raises the possibilities of mimicry as more real than that which it seeks to imitate.
It is perhaps because of this play on the boundaries of identity – or borderline ambiguities – that Almodóvar delights in threshold locations. His use of airports especially Madrid’s Barajas airport, which appears in many of his films, from his second to his most recent; the dressing rooms of film studios, theatres, nightclubs, replete with mirrors that lend themselves to particular filmic effects; cemeteries, in Madrid, Barcelona and (again) in his latest film, Volver. These are points of transition but they are also locations of transformation. This spatial aspect to Almodóvar is an important one. Urban space, the precincts the city arenas that have marked recent Spanish history and crucially, the element of freedom of movement are associated with questions of identity and with bridging those features that seem most peculiar in this particular director’s work. Critics have noted the importance of space in films such as the early ¿Qué he hecho yo para merecer esto? (1984) or in Carne trémula but its implications have rarely been analysed. The cultural intersections and the abundant hybrid forms produced of Spain’s uneven development and the dramatic and rapid changes of recent decades have provided Almodóvar with a rich mine of material. In both Mujeres al borde de un ataque de nervios and Volver rural life is at the heart of urban culture and vice versa.
On March 11, 2004 a series of explosions ripped through three commuter trains as they approached Madrid. 191 people were killed and thousands more were injured in Europe’s worst ever terrorist attack. The bombings came three days before the Spanish general elections and a week prior to the programmed release of Almodóvar’s 15th feature, La mala educación. The right-wing ruling party in government at the time sought to capitalise on the event by blaming it on the Basque separatist group ETA, while simultaneously concealing information that indicated that an Islamic terrorist group was responsible. Very quickly it became apparent that the government had lied and on March 14, in the face of all predictions to the contrary, the opposition Socialist Party won the elections. Almodóvar applauded the result. Almost exactly a year previous to the bombings Madrid had hosted one of the largest demonstrations ever held to protest Spain’s involvement in the invasion of Iraq. The three main speakers at the end of the march were Pedro Almodóvar, his leading actress in Hable con ella, Leonor Watling, and veteran director and actor Fernando Fernán Gómez. At the premiere of La mala educación later in the month of March 2004, a right-wing mob outraged at Almodóvar’s statements gathered to insult and hurl rotten vegetables at those entering to see the new film. After winning two Oscars and numerous other awards both at home and abroad, it is testimony to the enduring reputation for transgression that Almodóvar remains a refreshing source of contention and controversy.
Pepi, Luci, Bom y las otras chicas del montón (1980)
Laberinto de pasiones (Labyrinth of Passions) (1982)
Entre tinieblas (Dark Habits) (1983)
¿Qué he hecho yo para merecer esto? (What Have I Done to Deserve This?) (1984)
La ley de deseo (The Law of Desire) (1987)
Mujeres al borde de un ataque de nervios (Women On the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown) (1988)
¡Átame! (Tie Me Up, Tie Me Down) (1989)
Tacones lejanos (High Heels) (1991)
La flor de mi secreto (The Flower of My Secret) (1994)
Carne trémula (Live Flesh) (1997)
Todo sobre mi madre (All About My Mother) (1999)
Hable con ella (Talk To Her) (2002)
La mala educación (Bad Education) (2004)
Volver (Return) (2006)
Los abrazo rotos (Broken Embraces) (2009)
La piel que habito (The Skin I Live In) (2011)
Los amantes pasajeros (I’m So Excited!) (2013)
Mark Allinson, A Spanish Labyrinth: The Films of Pedro Almodóvar, IB Tauris, London/New York, 2001.
Pedro Almodóvar, Patty Difusa y otros textos,
Marvin d’Lugo, Pedro Almodóvar, Contemporary Film Directors series, University of Illinois, Chicago, 2006
Frederic Strauss (ed.), Almodóvar on Almodóvar, Faber and Faber, London/Boston, c1996.
Paul Julian Smith, Desire Unlimited: The Cinema of Pedro Almodóvar, Verso, New York, 1994.
Kathleen Vernon and Barbara Morris (eds.), Post Franco Postmodern: The Films of Pedro Almodóvar, Greenwood, Westport, 1995.
Articles in Senses of Cinema
The Flower of My Secret by Carla Marcantonio
Official site. In Spanish, French and English.
Film Directors – Articles on the Internet
Links to online articles can be found here
An older fan page. In Spanish, English and German.
Guardian/NFT interview: Pedro Almodóvar
Transcript of interview with Jose Arroyo at the NFT, following a screening of Talk to Her.
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