Perhaps no other contemporary director has questioned and delved into masculine beauty and vulnerability as deeply as Pedro Almodóvar. Throughout his decades-long career he has explored the skin, desires, fears and hypocrisy of men who, coming off the repressive Franco era, are afraid to feel, to cry, to explore their creativity and sexuality. Perhaps no scene in Almodóvar’s repertoire is as exemplary of this exploration of the male psyche as Caetano Veloso’s rendition of the Mexican classic “Cucurrucucú paloma” in Hable con ella (Talk to Her).
“Cucurrucucú paloma” is a melancholic huapango-style song written by Tomás Méndez in 1954. The song has been covered by countless singers throughout the decades, most notably by the great Mexican diva Lola Beltrán, by Almodóvar’s late friend Chavela Vargas (a pioneering queer icon in the Spanish-speaking world) and by US folk singer Joan Baez.
In Hable con ella we see a male swimmer crossing a pristine blue pool at night. Almodóvar takes his time filming every inch of his body, his skin glistening as he stands up and the camera reveals his smiling face dripping water. Acoustic guitar notes. We are in a country house at a party. The guests are sitting and standing in a semicircle, transfixed on the singer, a thin middle-aged man who looks equal parts Buster Keaton and Fernando Pessoa. It is, we realise, Caetano Veloso, the bossa nova virtuoso and perhaps the most celebrated Brazilian folk singer of all time.
The camera pans to reveal the guests. Cinematic past and present collide. In a surprising move, very unlike him, Almodóvar gives us a glimpse of the protagonists of his previous film, Todo sobre mi madre (All About My Mother, 1999). We see Manuela (Cecilia Roth), a mother who in the film loses her teenage son, and Huma Rojo (Marisa Paredes), a stage actress who befriends her. It is as if Almodóvar is telling us, through song and the stuff that movies are made of, that everything is always alright at the end. Almodóvar, always the master of melodrama.
We then focus on our protagonist, Marco Zuluaga, played by the Argentinian actor Darío Grandinetti. He is a journalist madly in love with a female bull fighter. His old-world machismo charm is gone as he sheds a tear while listening to Caetano’s voice. His vulnerability makes Marco all the more real. No matter that the singer’s accent is slaughtering the lyrics: what matters is the feeling with which he sings, the way in which he tells the story of a dove who dies of lovesickness, of pasión mortal, deadly passion. It is one of those rare moments in which a song colonises cinematic space, transforming it, fusing the character’s vulnerability with our own.
Whenever I feel homesick I go into YouTube and watch this clip. My grandmother used to listen to this song often. Like Marco, I shed a tear whenever I hear it.