Almodóvar, From Now to Then

In Spain, as Pedro Almodóvar was getting ready to leave home, no young man argued with his father about politics, no one wanted to discuss or refight the Civil War. Instead, the argument was about the length of your hair, the cut of your clothes, the music you listened to, the movies you watched, the posters on your bedroom wall.

By the time Franco, the old dictator, died in 1975, most people had already shrugged him off. There were more important things to think about. The newspapers reported the changes that took place in the political realm—the creation of democratic systems. But other changes were going on unnoticed in areas that were almost private, including the sexual realm and dress and interior décor.

Out of the silence of a dictatorship that had lasted almost forty years came speech. But no artist had yet registered what this speech sounded like. Out of this silence, also, new images were needed. The old pre–Civil War images of women, for example, had been essentially tragic. If you listened to the voice of the Spanish soprano Victoria de los Ángeles, for example, you heard a plaintive sound. She registered suffering, regret, solitude. There was always in her voice a sense of deep yearning, of something lost that could be recovered and must be mourned or glorified.

The beauty of her voice played with innate ideas of power and powerlessness; the lyric impulse itself combined with a desperate sadness; the very act of description and praise and wonder took on a strange tenderness and wistfulness. For women and for gay men listening, the sound she made seemed to sum up the undercurrent of sadness, powerlessness, in our lives.

This undercurrent had become a dominant mode for the gay Spanish dramatist Federico García Lorca, murdered by the Fascists in 1936. “Granada’s very purest voice,” he wrote, “was her elegiac voice.” As an artist, Lorca was interested in simple freedoms in a time when nothing was simple. Lorca knew with an almost whimsical certainty that in Spain in 1936 the personal was political, and that the body itself, especially the body of a woman or a homosexual man, was as much the territory of conflict and destiny as the ownership of land or factories.

Lorca wrote plays for women’s voices full of heartrending expression but surrounded by a savage sense of restriction and cruelty. He knew that this had political implications, but he was too subtle in his artistry to make this obvious, and too interested in the plight of his characters, in the pure excitement and depth of the conflict between them, to be concerned to make them smaller than the world outside. He was ambitious enough to make his women actually become and embody the wider conflict between freedom and restriction in Spain rather than stand in for it. Almodóvar, as a gay filmmaker, would learn a great deal from him.

Lorca wrote his young women in The House of Bernarda Alba with that same strange tenderness that George Eliot, as a female novelist, used to create her idealistic men, such as Will Ladislaw or Daniel Deronda, or that other homosexual writers, from Henry James to Tennessee Williams, used to imagine their women trapped by convention.

After Lorca’s death came emptiness. The task of artists, once the dictator had died, was to work out ways of filling a vacuum that censorship had created.

“What he saw around him was too interesting for him to be bothered with repression; he saw Madrid on the verge of a nervous breakdown.”

Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown

As Spain moved from fascism to democracy, there were a number of exquisite, delicate films that attempted to dramatize the past, what had happened in the country during the dictatorship. These included Víctor Erice’s The Spirit of the Beehive (1973), which dealt with the life of a young girl in 1940. The film was filled with both innocence and watchfulness, with undertones of violence and menace. Cría cuervos . . . (1976), directed by Carlos Saura, dramatized the legacy of fascism and was also narrated from the perspective of a young girl, as was Erice’s El Sur (1983), which depicted a world of provincial repression.

It was possible, then, to imagine that Spanish filmmakers would spend the next decades finding images that dealt with the repression and sense of loss that came from the war and its aftermath, pitting the innocence of childhood against the darkness all around.

In Madrid, as he worked for a telephone company in the late 1960s and early 1970s, Pedro Almodóvar learned something essential about Spain. For the job interview, he had managed to disguise his long hair by using hair-oil and putting it in a bun, but when he arrived in his new job, no one would work with him. Long hair was still too scandalous. But they couldn’t actually fire him for it. Finally, one of his fellow employees relented and agreed to work with him. Within two months, he says, he had won the rest of them over, and they all grew to love him, despite his long hair. When he finally left the telephone company, they told him that they would hold his job for him in case he ever needed it again.

His job, while there, was to exchange new telephone apparatuses for old ones, and, to his delight, he began to meet a new breed, and they would help him make his name. He met Spanish middle-class women, whom he had not known before, and he had an opportunity to study them closely at a time of social change when everyone in the city was going through an identity crisis. A new telephone apparatus was an important element for a new self in the new Spain. The old black Bakelite telephone was an object from the dull, repressive past. The clients of the telephone company wanted new bright colors just as they wanted new sorts of telephone conversations.

Almodóvar was lucky, perhaps, that Franco decided to close the film school that he had wished to attend. He did not have to waste time struggling with his teachers. Instead, he taught himself. He bought a Super 8 camera with his first paycheck, and he showed his films wherever he could. His work was different from that of his contemporaries: Almodóvar told stories while others made vague, arty, and conceptual films. From the minute he began, no matter how small the venue, he could make people roar with laughter. Among the Super 8 people, he stood out as too populist, but once he began to make feature-length films—and he made his first one while still working at the telephone company—he stood out from other Spanish filmmakers who were obsessed with the Civil War.

What he saw around him was too interesting for him to be bothered with repression; he saw Madrid on the verge of a nervous breakdown. While he had many small, exciting ideas, they were dominated by some very large and interesting ones. What if no one cared about the past? What if all the energy of his characters was used up reinventing themselves? What if the categories of the past collapsed under the weight of fresh categories? What if category itself could fade away? What if, when women spoke, they said things that were funny, bright, unexpected rather than tragic, disconsolate, repressed? What if people’s desires were dark and weird as well as innocent and sweet? What if film itself reflected all this brightness in the very tones and textures it used, in the way walls were painted and furniture and costumes chosen, in the music, in the way the camera moved and the film was edited?

Bad Education

It is unclear whether the films that Almodóvar made took their bearings from a changing Spain, or whether a changing Spain took its bearings from his films. While many of the early works, such as Pepi, Luci, Bom (1980) or Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown (1988), set in an eternal present, in a place that was fully and thrillingly unstable, changing, open to more change, gradually Almodóvar began to let the past into his films, thus creating a drama between the excitement of the previous films and a sort of haunting that intensified that excitement.

In Pepi, Luci, Bom, for example, even though it centers on sexual abuse by a policeman, there is no treatment of the legacy of the Spanish police in a repressive state. What happens remains personal rather than political, and it will be treated almost comically, or at least lightly. Instead of offering sermons on police brutality, those who have been offended seek to find out what sexual dreams and fantasies haunt the police officer’s wife. I remember seeing the film in Barcelona in the early 1980s and being thrilled and fascinated by its refusal to follow an obvious path. It was not merely a film; it was a way of thinking. It suggested that the new freedoms being offered in Spain might begin within the body, with the aim of having dreams, including sexual ones, fulfilled. It suggested a strangeness within the self that should be celebrated now that it did not have to be repressed. It was against wistfulness. Its joy lay in its intense exploration of the fleeting present moment.

Later Almodóvar films, such as All About My Mother (1999) and Bad Education (2004), on the other hand, depended for their drama on events that had occurred years before. Time had moved on. The past had slipped out of the malevolent hands of the old dictator. Brightness, newness, self-invention, and indeed pain could now have their own past, their own personal density.

Thus the scenes in Bad Education when the boy sings with a beautiful and plaintive voice belong to memory. They are not filmed with the same insouciance and carefree ease as scenes in Almodóvar’s earlier films. They are flashback; they are needed to explain a present that is no longer fully autonomous. If time began for Almodóvar around 1975, then time has moved forward enough by 2004 for the sequence when the boy sings “Moon River” to be almost a period piece.

The films where he allowed the past to matter can be seen as Almodóvar’s second period, leaving us to wonder what further themes he will explore. Now that he is about to mark his fortieth year as a filmmaker, we can look back on that era as a time in his career in which nothing was lost, but in which a great deal was gained as events from the past resurfaced and became real once more.


A retrospective of Almodóvar’s films is available to stream on the Criterion Channel through August 31, 2019.