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Pedro Almodóvar Is Still Making Movies That Shock

During the 1970s, when he shot his first Super 8 shorts and his first full-length feature, Almodóvar’s disinhibited imagination allowed him to revise plots on the fly as the friends who played his characters dropped in and out of shoots. From the beginning, his work defied every principle of Francoism. His 1975 short, “The Fall of Sodom,” used some 30 men in cross-dress and makeup to re-enact the moment in Genesis when Sodomites surround Lot’s house. “All that could be done only in the countryside because they would have taken us to jail,” Almodóvar said.

At 72, the self-taught filmmaker remains at the peak of his powers. His 2019 film “Pain and Glory” earned two Academy Award nominations, the sixth and seventh for his movies. “Parallel Mothers” seems poised to bring him more. He has built a production company that ensures his artistic freedom, has nurtured some of Spain’s greatest actors and has created comedies that rival those of film masters Billy Wilder and Luis Buñuel. Like them, he has a genius for making the outrageous seem ordinary. But where Wilder dripped acid on romance and Buñuel roasted the bourgeoisie, Almodóvar’s movies are rarely cynical. Instead, he favors love and empathy. He has probably done more than any other director to transform the cinematic portrayal of gay and transgender people, and he has deliberately dismantled the machista perspective on women in film. And now with “Parallel Mothers,” he is directly confronting the legacy of Franco for the first time.

When Auria woke from her nap, Almodóvar was ready with a rewrite. He would have Smit tell Cruz that the girl was tired and had been put to bed, a fiction that was also a truth. But as if she sensed that her leverage had disappeared, the little star behaved like an angel. After their first take, Cruz blew her kisses. They were back on schedule.

Almodóvar was among the first wave of Spaniards to catch Covid-19 in early March 2020. The virus hit him like a bad cold: low fever, muscle aches, upset stomach, headaches. Nothing terrible. Financially, however, Spain’s strict lockdown felt like a catastrophe. At the time “Parallel Mothers” was nothing more than a forgotten file on his computer. Instead, he was scheduled to shoot a short film, “The Human Voice,” with Tilda Swinton in early April. The meticulously constructed set waited inside a warehouse on the outskirts of Madrid. But lockdown prevented him from using it. Would he need to abandon the project and trash months of work?

Ever since Pedro and his younger brother, Agustín, pooled all their resources to start the production company El Deseo in 1986, they have guarded Pedro’s artistic independence. No one can insist that he cut a trans character or redesign a controversial poster or skip the hand-painted kitchen tiles. El Deseo owns the negatives and the copyrights to all but three of his films. This kind of artistic control, however, requires careful financial management. Pedro’s films usually cost around 10 million euros. “On my side I always need to handle the money with a kind of whip, as if it were an animal,” Agustín told me. If they lost too much on “The Human Voice,” the beast could inflict significant wounds, affecting El Deseo’s budget for future films.

Agustín began helping Pedro with his shoots in the 1970s, when he was a university student. A former professor of mathematics, he is one of the first people to read Pedro’s scripts and has done cameos in all of Pedro’s feature films. From the start, he was unruffled by Pedro’s frank portrayal of gay relationships. “The fact that Agustín is the producer for my films makes everything easier for me, in every sense,” Pedro told me. “Not only during the shooting, during the creation of the film, but also after.” Together the brothers manage all the important decisions affecting Pedro’s career. Michael Barker, the co-president of Sony Pictures Classics, remembers noticing a strange feature in El Deseo’s contracts during the 1980s. “They each signed the name Almodóvar exactly the same,” he said. “You never knew if this was Agustín or this was Pedro.”

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