You can enjoy an Almodovar movie but wonder if you are doing so for the wrong reasons: they may leave you speculating more about colour coordination than camera angles, pondering over your flat’s shabby-chic interior instead of a character’s interiority.
His new film, “Parallel mothers” (2021), puts paid to such trivial diversions by addressing an issue that goes to the heart of Spain’s recent history: the civilians (over 100,000) who during Spain’s civil war and Franco’s dictatorship disappeared but whose bodies have never been recovered.
Kitsch and camp has been associated with some of Almodovar’s films, making him a darling of those who thought post-modernism was the last word in aesthetics, but “The cinema of Pedro Almodovar” is far from being a superficial study of Spain’s greatest living film maker.
His zany early films, made before co-founding with his brother the production company El Deseo, are inseparable from the counter-cultural la movida. His riotous debut “Pepi, Luci, Bom and other girls like mom” (1980) is best enjoyed as a rebellious celebration of the death of the Franco regime.
The films that come later are highly stylised affairs, like “Matador” (1986) with its exploration of bullfighting as a quintessential symbol of the Spanish soul.
The chapter examining this film (“Faking Spain”) regards it as perpetuating myths of Spanishness, tellingly pointing out how the country’s Ministry of Culture covered 50% of its production costs.
Looking back, Almodovar’s exuberant embrace of post-modernist tropes -multiple narratives and points of view, mixing high with low art, pastiche and so on-, feels inevitable for a film director rejecting the cultural legacy of the past and looking for new modes of expression.
It propelled his rise to stardom, transforming his reputation from that of an underground auteur to a director of international renown. Audiences were won over with films like “Todo sobre mi madre” (All about my Mother, 1999) that combine the director’s trademark excess and melodrama with, in his own words, a journey through the ‘tunnel of memory’. The quest of the character Esteban to find about his family’s background parallels Spain’s need to confront the past.
Almodovar’s film made a year earlier, “Carne tremula” (Live flesh, 1997) was the first to make an explicit reference to the Franco regime.
The movie’s contrast between a muted, black-and-white opening set in 1970 and vibrant colours for a period twenty years later might suggest a sense of historical progress.
But Sanchez-Arce argues that the film’s form -its insistent circularity- undermines its content and questions the national narrative of Spain’s recovery from past crimes.
“The cinema of Pedro Almodovar” is an intelligent, thoroughly researched study of all the films up to “Dolor y Gloria” (Pain and Glory, 2019), showing them to be nuanced and political reflections on a reckoning with Franco.
“The cinema of Pedro Almodovar”, by Ana Maria Sanchez-Arce, is published by Manchester University Press.