Poor Generalissimo Franco, not yet dead a decade before the Spanish film industry he'd so carefully censored gained its new leading tastemaker: a plump, girly homo fond of gender blur, anticlericalism, and nuclear-family meltdowns. Twenty-two years have passed since What Have I Done to Deserve This? made Pedro Almodóvar "enfant terrible of Spanish cinema" — a title that still sticks in his late 50s — as well as a dominating cultural force.
New movies "by Almodóvar" (like Picasso or Cher, he became an institution early on) are international events as those by Fellini or Bergman used to be in the ’60s. There remain good Spanish movies by directors working in entirely different styles. Yet in terms of what gets seen abroad, you might reasonably judge the whole industry to have gone Almodovaresque — a term applicable to select hit films by established talents like Bigas Luna (Jamón Jamón) and Álex de la Iglesia (Ferpect Crime), not to mention rising talents like Ramón Salazar (20 Centimeters) and Manuel Gómez Pereira (Queens). There may well be too many shrill, candy-colored Spanish comedies in which women act like hysterical drag queens and men like horndogs — but the master himself is no longer making them.
His ongoing evolution is partially charted in "Viva Pedro," an upcoming four-week retrospective at the Castro and Shattuck theaters. The eight films in this series are what Sony Classics could get its hands on. "Viva" has to skip over his first five features (including What Have I Done?), leaving little of the John Waters–style anarchy that dominated his early work. (Like Waters, Almodóvar started out making campily offensive 8mm silents with nonsynch soundtracks, up through Fuck Fuck Fuck Me Tim!, his 1978 feature debut.) Particularly missed is Labyrinth of Passion, the quintessential all-purpose Almodóvar title and one of his funniest films. Also left out are early-’90s titles Tie Me Up, Tie Me Down; High Heels; and Kika.
Still, there's plenty of good stuff in a package encompassing his two most outré forays into homoeroticism (1986's Matador and the following year's Law of Desire, both with Banderas), his most successful farce (1988's Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown), and the strange, still-in-progress trip toward profundity commenced in 1995 with The Flower of My Secret.
Almodóvar reportedly often shoots scenes in alternate funny and serious modes. The eccentric Flower is said to have found its largely serious tenor in the editing room. This high-wire balance between baroque ideas and earnest emotions was less wobbly in 1997's wonderfully lurid Live Flesh. Two years later, Almodóvar surprised critics by delivering All About My Mother, a waterfall of Douglas Sirk–ian suffering female tears universally hailed for its newfound maturity. I (resistant) imagined Susan Hayward hammering her coffin lid, yelling, "Manny, you son of a bitch agent, that shoulda been my script!"
Almodóvar came out (in all senses) of the Madrid-centered Movida arts movement, whose late ’70s–early ’80s explosion of punk, camp, and transgression personified the most radical forces behind Spain's rapid transformation from Franco-era repression to today's extremely liberal culture. Traditional Spanish obsessions with death, sex, and religion plus post-Franco giddiness toward finger-diddling every hitherto taboo subject needn't be "read into" Almodóvar movies — they're spelled out on every flamboyant, melodramatic surface.
But not until his most recent two films did all these themes blend together in sardonic yet sympathetic wide-screen perfection. These are 2002's Talk to Her — in which the main female characters are comatose, leaving the men to do the emotional weight lifting — and 2004's Bad Education, a Catholic black comedy cum sexual-horror film oddly, elegantly redolent of Vertigo. In November we'll get Volver, with Penélope Cruz and Carmen Maura returning to the fold.