Spanish exhibition

No one expected a touring Pedro Almodóvar film festival

Pedro Almodóvar on the set of his newest film, <span style=Volver.">

Pedro Almodóvar on the set of his newest film, Volver.

The fascist dictator Gen. Francisco Franco closed Spain’s film schools in the 1960s, just as a young Pedro Almodóvar set out to enroll. Undaunted, Almodóvar executed a self-produced series of raunchy short films, notorious drag musical performances and experimental theater excursions. By the mid-’70s, Franco was dead, and Almodóvar was the centerpiece of La Movida, Madrid’s sexually frank and politically aware counterculture movement.

Sixteen feature films, two Academy Awards and three decades later, 57-year-old Almodóvar is the most internationally acclaimed Spanish filmmaker since Luis Buñuel and arguably the most important director from any country in the last decade. Each new Almodóvar release carries an intensity of anticipation unmatched on the world stage since the foreign masters of old, like Fellini and Bergman.

In a unique attempt to raise Almodóvar’s profile even higher—and to build up hype for the release of his latest film, the Cannes-awarded Volver—Sony Pictures Classics is unfurling Viva Pedro! A nationally touring festival of eight Almodóvar films, Viva Pedro! kicked off in New York in early August and will travel to at least 50 American cities. The festival stops at the Crest Theatre for two weeks starting on October 20.

This sort of nationwide re-release has all but disappeared from theaters—unless Walt Disney, Peter Jackson or George Lucas is involved. Adult movie audiences have been declining for years, so why all the fuss over a hard-R filmmaker who has never made a movie that’s grossed more than $10 million in America?

“People think we’re crazy,” said Michael Barker, co-president of Sony Pictures Classics. “But the films are so fine, and it makes so much sense to do it. There is a real desire on the part of the audience to experience these films in the theater again.”

Viva Pedro! consists of eight Almodóvar movies, all with new prints: Matador, Law of Desire, Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, The Flower of My Secret, Live Flesh, All About My Mother, Talk to Her and Bad Education. (A DVD box set of the films is also in the works.)

There is little recent precedent for a nationally touring film festival centered around a single director of international notoriety but dubious commercial clout, although Barker and Sony Pictures Classics co-President Tom Bernard previously staged a smaller-scale retrospective for Indian director Satyajit Ray. If Viva Pedro! seems like a conscious attempt to place Almodóvar into the pantheon of cinema masters like Ray, that’s because it is.

“Pedro Almodóvar has hit a level of profile and image that Federico Fellini had in the ’60s and ’70s,” said Barker. “Fellini had movies that crossed over into the mainstream, but in the era of Fellini, there were others. In this era, there’s only Almodóvar.”

Certainly, Almodóvar is the only consistently successful world filmmaker of the past 20 years who fits the classic director-as-maestro mold. His movies are the dictionary definition of auteurism—he always gets sole writing and directing credits, and he imprints every frame of his films with his unique vision.

Antonio Banderas in <span style="font-style:normal">Matador</span>, Francesca Neri in <span style="font-style:normal">Live Flesh</span> and Julieta Serrano in <span style="font-style:normal">Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown</span>.

Almodóvar mixes the moral ambiguity of European cinema with the irreverence and sexual ambiguity that defined the post-fascist youth culture of Spain, and shoots it through the lens of a Technicolor Hollywood fantasia. His greatest cinematic influences are American—the pop psychodrama of Douglas Sirk, the feminine gaze of George Cukor and the colorful set pieces of Vincente Minnelli.

Almodóvar made his first feature in 1980, but 1986’s Matador is the earliest film in Viva Pedro! Matador is a boldly stylish film about a virginal, would-be rapist (played by Almodóvar mainstay Antonio Banderas) who takes the heat for violent sex crimes committed by his ex-bullfighter teacher and an obsessed female fan, both of them experts in “the art of killing.”

Matador is sexy and savage, with some bizarrely affecting performances, but the film paints itself into an increasingly ludicrous corner. Still, Almodóvar’s operatic eroticism trumps the somewhat seamy production values—the last shots of orgasm and murder in matador capes are powerfully theatrical.

Pedro and his producer-brother Agustin formed their own production company in 1987, and their first release was Law of Desire, the best and most mature of Almodóvar’s early work. For most of its running time, Law of Desire is a terse melodrama about an emotionally icy director and yet another obsessed fan (Banderas again). The film culminates in a series of wild, romantic flourishes—unbelievably sensual camera moves; quasi-religious tableaux; an exploding typewriter; and a freeze-frame final shot that, depending on your tastes, will either clinch your heart or clench your bowels.

One of the most memorable characters in Law of Desire is the transsexual Tina (played by Carmen Maura, another Almodóvar regular). Tina has been used and betrayed by every man in her life, from the priest who molested her as a boy to the father who became her lover and sex-change benefactor, yet she emerges as the most kindhearted and devoutly Catholic character in the film.

This is a typical Almodóvar-ian dynamic: Horribly abused people behave like saints, and people of privilege act like insatiable beasts of romantic desire. In Almodóvar’s world, it’s the whores who are innocent and the virgins who are savage and cruel.

Almodóvar’s films have only grown richer in recent years, and thus Tina from 1987’s Law of Desire leads to the more fully realized character of Agrado, the indefatigably generous transsexual prostitute from 1999’s All About My Mother. Agrado (played by Antonia San Juan) gets raped and beaten by a drugged-out psychopath in her first scene, but seconds later, she is tending to her attacker’s wounds.

All About My Mother, about a grieving mother who returns to the Barcelona of her youth to find her dead son’s transvestite father, took Almodóvar to the next level of popularity and netted him his first Oscar. It’s a brilliant smash-up of women’s film genre roles and a study of the female as mother, whore, actress and costume. Almodóvar’s talents had clearly achieved a level of mastery here—the filmmaking shimmers with color and invention.

Rosario Flores and Pedro Almodóvar during production of 2002’s <span style="font-style:normal">Talk to Her</span>.

With its rogue’s gallery of female types, All About My Mother could be an updated version of Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, the 1988 release that introduced Almodóvar to international audiences. Women on the Verge is an amusing sexual farce (and a nod to Cukor’s The Women) about several high-strung women driven to madness by the deceptive men in their lives. It was Almodóvar’s first stateside hit, grossing more than $7 million and garnering him his first Academy Award nomination.

The film is beloved in some circles, but to these eyes, it’s a bit watered down for international tastes, with a slapstick car chase that smacks of a young director yearning for mainstream attention. That said, it’s also one of Almodóvar’s funniest films, full of his usual campy touches and circular storylines.

Just as Women on the Verge re-emerged a decade later as All About My Mother, 1997’s Live Flesh, with its virginal psychopath protagonist, is practically an unofficial remake of Almodóvar’s 1990 Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!

Live Flesh expanded on the naughty-boy sensationalism of Tie Me Up! A tightly wound Spanish noir about corrupt cops who pull two damaged youths into their own seedy world, it was Almodóvar’s first “mature” film that worked. Although it failed to ignite a spark at the box office, it was an enormous step forward for Almodóvar as a storyteller and stylist.

Live Flesh was certainly a major improvement over 1995’s The Flower of My Secret, Almodóvar’s first self-consciously “adult” film, about a jilted writer named Leo (Marisa Paredes, another regular) who is contractually bound to produce pseudonymous novels with “an absence of social conscience.”

The Flower of My Secret is well-made but generally uninvolving, with one rapturous scene of an emotional meltdown in the middle of a strike, as well as some intriguing personal touches. The concept of a successful writer attempting to divorce herself from her trashy artistic past may reveal Almodóvar’s true artistic intentions here—it was his first middle-aged movie.

Almodóvar’s autobiographical leanings found fuller flower in 2004’s sublime Bad Education, about molested Catholic schoolmates and lovers named Enrique and Ignacio who collaborate on a story called “The Visit,” which concerns molested Catholic schoolmates and lovers named Enrique and Ignacio, and the creation of a more faithfully autobiographical story-within-the-story called “The Visit.”

Bad Education is one of Almodóvar’s most psychologically sinewy films, and as always, he pays tribute to his influences. The film opens with a Hitchcock-ian score over a Saul Bass-style credit sequence, and in one pivotal scene, two scheming lovers duck into a film-noir festival. It also features the most creepy-sweet version of “Moon River” you’ll ever hear.

My personal favorite is 2002’s Talk to Her, Almodóvar’s most complex, assured and ineffably beautiful work to date. It concerns two comatose women and the damaged men who love them—one an emotionally muddled journalist, and the other a seemingly harmless, doll-eyed male nurse who carries on a bizarrely tender “relationship” with his female charge.

Talk to Her, which won the 2002 Academy Award for best original screenplay, features a perfectly Almodóvar-ian plot twist in which a shockingly distasteful crime provokes an incomprehensible miracle. It’s exactly the sort of outlandishly coincidental and emotionally ambiguous revelation that Almodóvar had been working up to his entire career, and as the films of Viva Pedro! make abundantly clear, his filmmaking faculties have only sharpened with age.