I was first introduced to Pedro Almodóvar with ‘Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown’ sometime last year. Being aware that this dangerously late discovery probably shouldn’t be written about, I’ll admit that given the man’s position and importance in the world of cinema, I’m ashamed, and filled with a bitter regret.
This regret is not simply the regret of somebody who passed through two decades with little to no knowledge of Almodóvar’s work, but the regret that comes with the realization that an entire industry has been looked past, an entire cinematic culture. At that time, it was not just Almodóvar I had failed to uncover, but the colourful, obscure and outrageous world that is revealed through Spanish cinema, and of course, Spanish life.
It was in this film, and through Pedro that I found something familiar, something that, thanks to my family background and experience, I’d found myself immersed in from a young age. This film, and every Almodóvar film, brings back memories of my childhood summers spent in Greece as a boy. I was surrounded by an incredible culture – an intelligent, deeply strange and hilarious mentality which flooded the country. Two or three months before ‘Women on the Verge’, I had the great pleasure of watching my girlfriend’s Athens-based short film/mockumentary ‘The Magnet’, which best captured this insanity, a statement on the weird and wonderful people that inhabit my father’s homeland. With my first Almodóvar experience, I identified a link between Spain – a country and a people pretty much unknown to me – and Greece, a place of madness, insanity and genius that I had somewhat grown accustomed to.
His characters are passionate, quirky, sex-crazed, bizarre, neurotic, vibrant and irreverent. He loves to play on the obscurities, irrationalities and insecurities of each character, and of women in particular, from the witty and eccentric transvestite prostitute, Agredo in ‘All About my Mother’ to the sassy, Sophia Lauren-based Raimunda (Penelope Cruz) in ‘Volver‘. Most of his films seem to explore working-class families, and working-class desires, which give his films a powerful identity and a flare which emerges from the underbelly of an entire nation – a grubby, raw and ruthlessly honest underbelly.
Growing up in the small, rural town of Ciudad Real, Pedro was one of four children in a largely impoverished family. His father, who was of peasant stock, spent his days hauling barrels of wine across the region by mule. At the age of eight, the young Pedro was sent to a religious boarding school in Caceres to study – reflected in his 2004 film ‘Bad Education’. He spent his evenings in the local Caceres movie theatre, devouring film upon film, night after night. In a recent interview, he stated, ‘Cinema became my real education, much more than the one I received from the priest’. It was only until he escaped to Madrid at the age of eighteen that he found success in writing and filmmaking.
While Almodóvar’s work is great on many levels – a clever script, visionary direction, surreal dialogue, and distinctive colours – it is surely his own rich and fascinating experience of the life and soul of his country that makes his films what they are. It seems almost as though he refrains from projecting himself onto the screen, and instead chooses to capture the essence of his world around him, the people he has known, and the madness that he has allowed to shape his life, and his art.