Over the past couple weeks, I’ve been catching up on films by beloved Spanish director Pedro Almodóvar. Often revered for his rich, soapy screenplays, challenging themes, and use of bright colors (especially red), his work is always, at the very least, entertaining. He’s made twenty two feature length films thus far, and has another one on the way set to release sometime this year. With that in mind, let’s take a brief trip through five of his most famous movies to see what this man is all about.
TW: several of the films below feature sexual violence.
Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown - Mujeres al borde de un ataque nervios (1988)
Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown served as Almodóvar’s breakthrough to international audiences, as it was nominated for the Academy award for Best Foreign Feature. It stars a plethora of his frequent collaborators, including Carmen Maura, Antonio Banderas, and Rossy de Palma, who would go on to serve as operative muses. The film has the dark comedic elements that the wordy title suggests: a woman, brought to her brink, is nearly driven to suicide- until she is interrupted by friends and, seemingly, fate. Hijinks ensue.
Much of the movie takes place in a single location, and for that reason it seems like it's meant for the stage- which it is. Almodovar based his script off the French play La Voix Humaine by Jean Cocteau, tweaking and modernizing a few elements to make it digestible. Sleeping pill gazpacho, a radical Islamic group, and lots of stuff being thrown off balconies makes the stew for this chaotic back and forth between friends and lovers.
Although I can’t say this is a personal favorite of mine, as I don’t feel as though Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown is as dynamically filmed as his later entries, I truly appreciate the unexpected poignancy of the ending. I think Almodóvar was smart to end in a moment of peace, wen the exhausted Pepa can finally catch a break. If you like talky dramedies with badass women, this is probably the safest one for you.
I wish I could stop there with the overview, because she is a ray of shining light, and could make practically any vessel good. She received an Academy award nomination for her performance in this film as burdened young mother Raimunda.
Volver is the sweetest melodrama you’ll ever see. Intergenerational connection is spurred by the stabbing of a deadbeat dad and the return of a supposedly deceased mother, and all ensuing actions are done to protect a 14 year old girl acting in self-defense. It’s quite endearing despite its soapy elements, and extremely colorful. The ensemble cast deserves recognition as well, with Almodóvar regulars Blanca Portillo and Lola Duenas being standouts.
There’s a strong, pulsing heart of womanhood at the center of the film that pulls everything together quite beautifully. If you are of the belief that women should support women, you’ve arrived at the right movie: Almodóvar believes the same thing.
I appreciate Volver’s chronological storytelling more in retrospect, as all of the twists of the film are revealed in real time. When stories are recounted, we observe the genuine emotion of the storytellers, making for several extremely powerful moments. Its finale achieves an even greater tenderness than the ending of Women on the Verge.
This is my second favorite Almodóvar.
Broken Embraces - Los abrazos rotos (2009)
Penelope Cruz is back, luckily, in this next feature. Although, as I mentioned just a paragraph ago, the chronological order I so admired in Volver is not present in Broken Embraces, a romance-thriller hybrid about a director reflecting on an affair he had with an actress while shooting a film. Of course, as we’ve come to expect with Almodóvar, nothing is ever really that simple. There’s a possessive millionaire and his voyeuristic son, an attempt to restart in a new city, a car crash- all of the fun elements that Almodóvar loves to implement to try and one-up his last feature.
Unfortunately, the lack of chemistry between Cruz and Lluis Homar bored me. Besides the obvious disparity between the romantic director and the controlling financier, there’s not all that much going for their relationship. As a result, there’s a whole chunk in the middle of the film that is as dull as dirt. They try to spice it up with a couple different reveals, but even the recurring endangerment of the young Lena fails to hold much weight. The plot, simply put, is underwhelming.
It must be said, however, that Broken Embraces was the most beautiful-looking of the five films I watched. The vibrant primary colors, the cold architecture of the mansion versus the softness of writer Mateo’s home, and the eye-catching costumes make it very pleasing to look at. If you’re a cinephile, there is some lore to be found in references to various eras of film, great artists, and even a tongue-in-cheek reference to his own film, Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown (the reference being that the project the director was working on had, in essence, the exact same plot). I wasn’t really in the mood to appreciate this “movie-maker loves movies” tribute, so it didn’t do all that much for me, but maybe it’ll do something for you.
The Skin I Live In - La piel que habito (2011)
The Skin I Live In is Almodóvar’s most divisive film to date, and boy is it a doozy. Antonio Banderas plays Dr. Robert Ledgard, a plastic surgeon who tests a developing synthetic skin on a woman he keeps hostage in his home. But wait, there’s more! The amount of intrigue in this movie honestly made my head spin. Non-linear storytelling, complex intergenerational trauma, rape, revenge, replicas… have I said too much?
To be frank, I have no idea where I stand on this movie. If I determined a movie’s quality by the amount of times it made me gasp, I would declare this a masterpiece. But the whole experience left a bad taste in my mouth. Almodóvar loves to be subversive, and he sure as hell achieves that here. But the extreme sexual violence and muddled gender politics make this a really difficult movie to recommend. I don’t think that it needed to be so graphic in order to make its point: if I think back to Volver, and what it accomplished through verbal description as opposed to directly showing the roughness, this movie feels slightly exploitative in comparison.
Additionally, there is a forced vaginoplasty surgery for a male character that’s enacted as a point of revenge. Now, I am no gender studies academic. I was willing to take the movie for what it was, even if just shock value. I think reactions to this transformation will vary from person to person, depending on whether they see movies as diverse stories coming to life, or as being inherently political. As a person who appreciates nuance, I was willing to see both sides of the argument. I have come to the conclusion that, given the total lack of propriety shown by almost every character in the movie (thus avoiding directly advocating for any harmful mentalities) it’s experimental enough to be worth a second thought. It finds success in bringing something new to the psychological thriller genre. It thoroughly unsettled me, and left me pining for someone else to discuss it with. I do think that’s what good art does.
Is this a personal favorite by any means? No. But I will give it credit for making me think. And I would still like to have a second person’s opinion.
Pain and Glory - Dolor y Gloria (2019)
It took us thirty years. But we’ve finally arrived at what I think to be Almodovar’s crowning achievement (by my humanistic, sentimental standards). Pain and Glory is, for me, the most important thing a movie can be: sincere. Almodóvar has done murder and sexual assault and trauma galore, and those are all fine and good in moderation. I think that this movie, beyond being a bit more tame in the content department, achieves the perfect balance of authenticity and cinematic flair. It contains those kinds of moments that seem too good to be true, but which are still grounded enough to be within the realm of possibility. It matches self-reflection with forward direction by insinuating that you need one to have the other. I found the use of flashbacks very tolerable this time around.
Antonio Banderas, in a very different role from The Skin I Live In, is an ailment-ridden director who hasn’t had a hit in years. He thinks back to his childhood, his intimate relationships, and his prior projects. All of the self-indulgent things I found obnoxious about Broken Embraces’ dip into the love of film were at once touching and nostalgic in Pain and Glory. Seemingly irrelevant memories become the momentum for character development, and Banderas plays his subtle character to a tee. It’s always going to seem pretentious to compare movies to Tarkovsky’s work, but I must do it: this is Almodóvar’s Mirror. Despite Almodóvar’s succinct structure to the present-day plot, its principle strength is in the seamless triggering of the past through the present. Add in some damn good speeches and an ending that ties up all the loose pieces in a neat little bow, and you have a great, great film. I cannot recommend this one enough.
Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, Volver, Broken Embraces, and The Skin I Live In are streaming on HBO Max. Pain and Glory is available on Starz.