Friday 20 April 2018

Film - Almodóvar: Franco's worst nightmare

Serious tone: Julieta, one of Pedro Almodóvar’s best movies, opens here this week
Serious tone: Julieta, one of Pedro Almodóvar’s best movies, opens here this week

Paul Whitington

Pedro Almodóvar might be synonymous with contemporary Spanish cinema for foreign audiences, but of late, he's been having a tough time of it at home. Earlier this year, his name popped up on the Panama Papers, which proved he and his brother had set up an offshore account in the early 1990s, for tax purposes.

This was a major embarrassment for a man who's always been closely associated with socialism and the radical left, and perhaps that's why the Spanish public has given his latest film such a rough ride. Released just days after the Panama leak, Julieta endured Almodóvar's worst opening in Spain for over 20 years, and some harsh reviews. Its rather dour tone may not have helped: the writer/ director has always been known for his humour and irreverence, and Julieta clearly failed to match the mood of a nation that's been going through very difficult times.

But while it might not be the kind of film likely to cheer anyone up, Julieta is an exceedingly good one: it opens here this week and is among the director's best. The younger Almodóvar was very keen to shock, but for at least the last decade and a half, his films have tended to strike a more serious tone, offering stern and moralistic takes on Spanish society and human nature in often beautifully composed tableaux comparable to the work of his heroes, Bergman, Antonioni and Bunuel. Julieta definitely falls into this category, and stars Emma Suárez as a woman on the verge of a total breakdown.

Julieta is a quiet, cultured, middle-aged Madrid woman, who seems content with her lot, until she meets a ghost from her past. Beatriz was the inseparable friend of Julieta's daughter, Anita, who ran away years before and hasn't contacted her mother since. The sight of Beatriz plunges Julieta into despair, and she begins remembering the tribulations of her younger years.

Adriana Ugarte plays young Julieta in a film that tells its moving story with great panache and more than a touch of melodrama: Almodóvar is a great fan of the lush weepies of Hollywood directors like Douglas Sirk. Almodóvar's films have always embraced wild coincidences and outlandish plot twists and somehow made them work, and Julieta blithely ignores the absurdities of its storyline as it hones in on profound emotional truths. And while Spain might not have been prepared to listen, its sober soul-searching seems to chime perfectly with the country's recent experiences.

In ways, Pedro Almodóvar has acted as Spain's national conscience in recent decades, reflecting the joyous liberation of the post-Franco era in the 1980s, the disillusionment with Catholicism through the 1990s, and the ongoing battle for self-expression in a country still recovering from five decades of dictatorship. He's not loved by everybody, and is especially detested by the religious right, but others believe he has helped redefine what it means to be Spanish.

He was born, fittingly enough, in La Mancha, home of Don Quixote, on September 24, 1949. His background was humble though happy, but that all changed when he was sent to a Catholic boarding school at eight. Run by Salesian Friars, the school's regime was brutal, and sexual abuse was rife. Though Almodóvar says he was never abused himself, his experiences at the school helped destroy his faith in God.

He found consolation in films, which he loved from an early age. He planned to study cinema, but was unable to do so as Franco had closed down all the film-making schools. Instead, at 16, he drifted into Madrid, hoping to make it on his own. But success was not instant. After working as a hawker in the city's Rastro flea-market, he got a job in a phone company, where he stayed for 12 long years.

During that time, he was far from idle. He saved to buy a Super 8 camera, joined an experimental theatre and wrote articles for magazines under the colourful pseudonym of Patty Diphusa. After Franco finally turned up his toes in 1975, Madrid quickly became a hive of cultural activity. Pedro formed a parody punk band, and wrote daringly provocative lyrics.

More significantly, he began making short films with explicitly sexual themes, and showing them at parties, and in bars. As primitive technology made adding a soundtrack impossible, Almodóvar would play accompanying music on a tape recorder and do all the dialogue himself. These colourful performances made him famous in the Spanish capital, among the burgeoning gay community and beyond.

Then, in 1980, he completed his first feature film, Pepi, Luci, Bom and Other Girls on the Scrap Heap.

Made for the equivalent of €3,000, it was an extraordinary, sometimes shocking début, telling the story of a female punk who's raped by a corrupt cop and gets her revenge by destroying his marriage. At times energetically graphic, it outraged conservative Spain but proved a surprise hit, and a series of equally inventive low-budget movies followed. It was after he and his brother Agustin set up their production company, however, that his career really began to take off.

Films like Matador (1986) and Laws of Desire (1987) were hugely successful in Spain, but it was his first real tour de force, Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown (1988), that turned him into an international star. Starring one of his favourite actresses, Carmen Maura, and a young Antonio Banderas, it was a sharply funny tale of sexual and social confusion, with Almodóvar, as usual, delighting in turning bourgeois conventions on their head.

He scored an even bigger hit with Tie Me Up, Tie Me Down! (1990), the strangely touching story of a mental patient (Antonio Banderas again) who kidnaps a porn star (Victoria Abril) and asks her to marry him. Spain's social underbelly had been denied and persecuted by the Franco regime. In Almodóvar, it found its redeeming poet laureate.

Startlingly original, and as stylishly distinctive as Hitchcock's, his films are never less than challenging. In Kika (1993), a rape is trivialised by humour. In Live Flesh (1997), a prostitute gives birth on a bus. And in All About My Mother (1999), a nun is impregnated by a HIV-positive transvestite.

In ways, these earlier films could be seen an ongoing protest against the sterility and hypocrisy of the Franco era in which Almodóvar had been raised, but by the end of the 1990s, the Generalissimo seemed an increasingly distant and irrelevant historical anachronism, and Almodóvar began to make more ambitious films. As his writing talents have grown, he has matured into a more serious and accomplished storyteller, and a director of real stature.

In his 2002 film Talk to Me, which deservedly won an Oscar for its screenplay, two men formed an unlikely friendship while caring for the two women they love, who both happen to be in comas. It was acclaimed by many as a masterpiece, and his 2004 film, Bad Education, was almost as good. A kind of story within a story, it used the bare premise of two old school friends who set out to make a film about their childhoods to examine themes as diverse as Catholic education, clerical sex abuse and the relationship between cinema and reality.

Penélope Cruz had worked with Almodóvar on Live Flesh and All About My Mother, and in 2006, she reunited with the director to give perhaps her finest performance of all in my favourite Almodóvar film, Volver. Cruz gained weight and padded out her behind to play the earthy but embattled single mother Raimunda.

With a surreal panache worthy of Fellini, Almodóvar opened Volver in a La Mancha graveyard bombarded by high wind and orange dust. Women tend the graves of the men they've outlived, replacing flowers and sweeping with little brushes - but all their care is pointless, and will shortly be obliterated by the wind. Among the women are Raimunda and her teenage daughter: their relationship is strained, and is both tested and enlivened by what seems to be an appearance from beyond the grave, and the revelation of a shocking family secret.

Relationships between mothers and daughter recur constantly in Almodóvar's work, and in Julieta, he explores with compassion and precision the terrifying depths of a mother's grief. But the 66-year-old auteur does so with impressive style, and in a way that reminded me of the great noirs and melodramas that Hollywood used to specialise in but no longer knows how to make.

It you watch one film…

Documentary maker Aoife Kelleher impressed many with her last film, One Million Dubliners, an intimate portrait of Glasnevin Cemetery. And in her latest documentary, which was released here yesterday, Ms Kelleher tilts her lance at another quirky Irish institution, Knock. In Strange Occurrences in a Small Irish Town, we hear the story of the apparitions of 1879 from direct descendants of the people who reported them. Those sightings of the Blessed Virgin and friends transformed a sleepy Mayo village into a booming place of pilgrimage for much of the 20th century, though the shrine's popularity seems to have declined of late.

Knock's parish priest, however, is certainly doing his best to reverse that trend: an energetic and charismatic man, Fr Gibbons is making connections between the shrine and Irish-America which could make a huge difference for the community's future. He's very much the star of this show, but Kelleher's film also profiles everyone, from those who work at the shrine to those who visit, the shopkeepers whose income depends on a continued interest in holiness, and one woman who claims to have been miraculously cured. It's a very accomplished piece of work.

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