There is a delightful irony in the fact that Pedro Almodóvar originates from that region of central-southern Spain forever associated with Don Quixote – he is a Man of La Mancha. And just as Cervantes’ gallant knight became symbolic of the cultural flourishing of Spain at the cusp of the seventeenth century, so has Almodóvar become an icon of a Spain that has emerged after the repression of Franco’s dictatorship ended.
Pedro Almodóvar Caballero – another irony in that caballero also means knight or horseman – was born in the flat landscape around Ciudad Real, in September 1949, and born into a family that can truly described as humble. Antonio, his father, was a mule driver, hauling barrels of wine around. Francisca, his mother, who was later to appear in small roles in Pedro’s films before her death in 1990, was his academic inspiration – helping him to become a part-time teacher of literacy and ‘letter reader’ in the dying, impoverished village.
At the age of 8, Pedro was sent to Cáceres in Extremadura, to study at a religious boarding school to, hopefully, move into the priesthood, although his parents were later to move there as well. It was in Cáceres that Pedro first encountered the cinema – in the same street as his school – so that he was able, he said, to get all his education in the same street.
When he was 18, though, Pedro moved again – this time, very much to the disappointment of his mother, to Madrid. He knew that he wanted to be a film director but Franco had already closed down the National School of Cinema so, after his compulsory military service, he took numerous part-time jobs, including working at El Rastro – Madrid’s famous Flea Market – in order to subsidise his life as he became a part of the thriving underground ‘scene’ of the capital, La Movida.
Pedro experimented with every art form at this time. He was working in the theatre – where he met Carmen Maura, who would become his ‘leading lady’ for many years, for the first time; he wrote comics and articles for both underground magazines and El Pais; he sang in a glam rock parody punk rock duo called Almodóvar y Mcnamara; and started to experiment with a Super-8 camera.
Eventually, Pedro was able to find a permanent post with Telefonica, where, for 12 years, he worked as an administrative assistant. This suited him perfectly; introducing him, for the first time in his life, to the middle class lifestyles of a Spain just beginning the age of consumerism and, by finishing at 3 pm daily, he was able to develop his other talents.
By the end of the 1970s, his films, mostly overtly sexual at this stage, were being shown in the bars and clubs of Madrid and Barcelona and, in 1978 he made his first full-length Super-8 film and a 16mm short, Salome, which was to introduce him to the professional cinema for the first time.
Pedro Almodóvar’s first feature film, Pepi, Luci, Bom y otras chicas del montón, a low budget film mainly shot at the weekends with volunteers, was made in 1980, immediately incorporated elements that would mark it out as an Almodóvar film, and began the process of redefining contemporary Spanish cinema. He incorporated elements of underground and gay culture, outrageous humour, campy ‘kitschness’ but also looked closely at friendship – especially female solidarity – which would be so central to his work.
Pedro’s career developed steadily for the next few years – introducing popular music to express emotion and irony, satire of religious and state institutions, the links between violence and sexuality – all aspects that would re-emerge in later works. In 1986, he and his brother Águstin founded their production company, El Deseo, which gave him total creative independence and resulted in La Ley del Deseo, starring Carmen Mauro again but this time with Antonio Banderas in a tremendous role of a murderously obsessive and repressed stalker.
His following film, Mujeres al borde de un ataque de nervios, was to be his first truly international success, gaining an Oscar nomination for the best foreign language film.
Huge success then followed: ‘Todo Sobre Mi Madre’ in 1999 received more honours than any other film in Spanish cinematic history – an Oscar and a Golden Globe for best Foreign Language film and the Best Director award at Cannes amongst them; ‘Hable con Ella’ in 2002 – one of the most critically acclaimed of his films – won the French César for best film and the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay.
Yet, despite his undisputed international success, Pedro Almodóvar has not always been so well-received at home. For example, because of his outspoken criticism of Franco and support for the Socialist Party in the 2004 election, the premiere of ‘La Mala Educacíon’ was disrupted by a right wing mob. In addition, his consistent microscopic examination of the essential elements of ‘Spanishness’ and Spanish society have not always been easily accepted.
Undoubtedly, however, Pedro Aldomóvar’s films continue to be eagerly awaited because of the originality, humour, humanity and sincerity that he continues to display on the screen.