¡Mi Hombre, Pedro!
by Eric Peterson
I think we can all agree that living through a global health pandemic, wearing masks everywhere, and being stuck at home most of the time, is a big drag. When I’d much rather be imbibing margaritas downtown until it’s unclear whether my red nose is the result of too little sunblock or too much tequila. Instead, I’m mixing my own cocktails at home and my only companions are my dog and the people I see on my various screens, both real and fictional. (The dog, by the way, thinks the coronavirus is the best thing that ever happened. At least someone is having a good time.)
And while my families of choice and origin are doing a great deal to lift my spirits via FaceTime, Zoom, and the like, I’ve also been watching a lot of movies. Lots and lots of movies.
For a while, I was going back to the classics: movies from the 30s and 40s that I’d never seen, including My Man Godfrey, Woman of the Year, Watch on the Rhine, and The Thin Man. It was fun, and educational. While it felt a little like homework at first, these films really were designed to entertain first and foremost, and entertaining they were.
But eventually, the movies I was watching drifted away from the black-and-white, and became more colorful. And by “more colorful,” I mean big splotches of red and yellow, saturating the screen. I started (and am almost finished) watching every film created by Pedro Almodóvar.
Acclaimed Spanish director Almodóvar grew up under the dictatorship of Francisco Franco and became a leader of New Spanish Cinema after Francoist Spain transitioned back to democracy. He is a gay man with a distinct gay sensibility—and like much of gay culture, focuses occasionally on gay characters and more often on bold, brassy, larger-than-life women, a rebuke to any perceived link between strength and masculinity. He has won two Academy Awards, and his films can be wild, funny, shocking, violent, and deeply humane.
My first was his 1988 classic farce, Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown. The movie centers on Pepa, an actress who dubs classic American films with Spanish dialogue. When she is dumped by her lover via answering machine, she considers taking her own life with a pitcher of gazpacho laced with sleeping pills, but when her lover’s son arrives (quickly followed by a friend who may or may not have slept with a foreign terrorist), complications ensue. The film is bright, quick, funny, and empowering. It ends with a powerful moment of reconciliation—not between Pepa and her lover, but with another woman who was once seen as an annoying interloper but now might become a cherished friend.
From there, I leapt ahead to his latest film, 2019’s Pain & Glory (for which Antonio Banderas was nominated for a Best Actor Oscar). Unlike Women on the Verge, this movie was warm, reflective, and somber. I wondered how it could have been made by the same director, even 30 years apart.
Diving into his entire filmography provided some answers. While his earlier films (High Heels, Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!) were brash and shocking, he seemed to turn a corner at the turn of the century, and many of twenty-first century movies are just as daring, but more humane. Most critics will say that his 1999 masterpiece, All About My Mother (Oscar, Best Foreign Language Film), about a woman in search of her dead son’s father and the female friendships she acquires on her quest, was the moment that Almodóvar became a “serious” filmmaker.
But I believe the turning point was 1995’s The Flower of My Secret, about a woman whose marriage is falling apart, and she can no longer write the silly romance novels that have made her wealthy. The film was not very well-received, which is poetic: it’s literally about an artist who can no longer create pure escapism and is rejected on all sides. Personally, I loved it—and so many others.
Bad Education is controversial and sad. The Skin I Live In is dark and sinister. Volver is otherworldly and sweet. Julieta is epic and mysterious. Broken Embraces is chic and dangerous. Talk to Her (Oscar, Best Original Screenplay) is disturbing and romantic.
If you’re stuck at home with nothing to do and nothing exciting to binge, allow me to enthusiastically endorse the films of Pedro Almodóvar. Yes, you may have to read along, but I promise you won’t be bored.
Eric Peterson is a writer and teacher. He co-hosts a podcast about old movies—visit www.rewindpod.com to learn more.