“In terms of dramatic creativity there are three Spanish icons,” says academic and critic Maria Delgado. “Miguel de Cervantes, Federico García Lorca and Pedro Almodóvar.” But while Cervantes has been dead for over 400 years, and Lorca over 80, at the age of 79, the filmmaker from La Mancha continues to represent his homeland at the highest level, as this year he returned to the Cannes Competition with his 22nd feature film Pain and Glory, the semi-autobiographical tale of a director in decline (played by Antonio Banderas), ruminating on his life choices.
For Almodóvar, the last 40 years have been nothing but extraordinary. Back in the late ’60s he was working as an admin assistant for a Spanish telecom company, but when he clocked off at three in the afternoon he entered a secret and flamboyant world that would have shocked his drab, grey workmates.
Earlier in the decade, the country’s ruler-dictator General Franco approved a thaw in relations with foreign countries, ostensibly to encourage tourism. Instead, it opened a whole generation’s eyes to the power of pop culture—notably the transgressive works of American filmmakers such as Andy Warhol and John Waters, whose 1972 shockfest Pink Flamingos made a huge impact—and in the dark shadow of fascism a bright new movement was growing.
By the mid-’70s it had a name—“La Movida Madrileña”, translated rather liberally as the “The Madrilenian Groove”—and Almodóvar was its filmmaker in residence, shooting outrageous Super-8 shorts with such lurid titles as Two Whores, or, a Love Story that Ends in Marriage (1974), The Fall of Sodom (1975) and Sex Comes and Goes (1977).
It was this Pedro Almodóvar that caused a stir in 1980 with his scatty, scatological debut Pepi, Luci, Bom, a ragged, punk-infused, Day-Glo, druggy comedy about the adventures of three very different women living in the Spanish capital. It was the epitome of bad taste, a stream of of lewd jokes and kinky sex allusions that reaches a bizarre yet perfectly logical conclusion at the film’s unofficial centerpiece: a General Erections contest.
But Almodóvar was a dark horse. Since moving to Madrid at the age of 16 he’d been a regular at the Spanish Film Archive, where he discovered a whole new world of cinema: Italian neo-realism, British Free Cinema, the French Nouvelle Vague, silent movies and American melodrama. Within three years, Almodóvar proved there was more to his filmmaking than simply shock and scandal; with the equally provocative, convent-set Dark Habits in 1983, he injected a streak of melancholy that revealed a sensitive and compassionate heart beneath the trashy façade.
From then on, Almodóvar has been on a winning streak that took him as far as the Oscars not once but twice: firstly, in the Best Foreign Language Film category, with a nomination for 1988’s Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, and secondly—and most impressively—in the Best Director/Screenplay categories with nominations for Talk to Her (2002).
Remarkably, though, Almodóvar has always resisted the siren call of Hollywood: 1997’s Live Flesh was originally due to be his English language debut, and after plans to film Pete Dexter’s thriller The Paperboy came to nothing, he toyed with the idea of casting Meryl Streep in what became 2016’s Julieta. The funny thing is, the director’s English is actually pretty good. “I can understand and I can be understood,” he said, “but once I’m talking about my own movies—I don’t know why—I have to return to my own language.”