Sitting in the leafy garden of his Los Angeles hotel cottage, running his fingers through his spiky, espresso-colored hair, Pedro Almodovar is struggling to recall exactly how it was that as an 11-year-old Spanish boy in La Mancha, he managed to get into a theater to see 1958’s Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, starring a sultry Liz Taylor.
Dictator Francisco Franco’s vigilant board of censors had deemed the film ”for adults only.” ”I still don’t know how they let me in, but I remember thinking it was pure sin — at least according to what the priests at my Catholic school were teaching,” he says. The problem, he continues, was that he liked what he saw. ”Here I was, 11 and feeling like a pervert. Finally I thought to myself, ‘Well, if this is sin, let the sinning begin.”’
It was a fateful stand for the country boy who would grow up to not only bridge sin and cinema with unequaled flamboyance but lead ultraconservative, post-Franco Spain into a hedonistic artistic heyday—with the rest of the world invited to join in. Certainly Almodovar is one of the most successful foreign-language directors in the United States, thanks to the deliriously freaky characters who populate his films (transvestites, high-strung divas, promiscuous priests) and a love of melodrama so exuberant, the adjective Almo-drama has already been coined. Since 1980, all 13 of his distinctively racy films have been distributed here, though Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, his 1988 breakout hit, and Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!, which he released unrated in 1990 — after the MPAA slapped it with a blistering X — are by far his most popular. (Oh yes, and you — and Melanie Griffith — can thank him for discovering an inexperienced lad named Antonio Banderas, star of five Almodovar films, including 1987’s Law of Desire.)
Now, after years of madcap odes to pansexual encounters and women in distress, Almodovar himself seems on the verge—of something new. His latest film, All About My Mother, which earned him the Best Director award at this year’s Cannes film festival, displays the sort of emotional maturity and cinematic sophistication which has Hollywood wagging about Oscar. ”As I have approached my 40th year—and in fact generously passed it,” he jokes in Spanish, ”I’ve learned more about myself and have tried to expand my world.”
In some respects, the movie is vintage Almodovar; it’s photographed in the director’s trademark palette of primary colors, and the usual eccentrics are running amok. But Mother is also deeply moving: Manuela (Cecilia Roth) — an amateur actress-turned-nurse who teaches seminars on how to gently solicit organ donations from the grieving families of terminal patients — winds up on the other side of the equation when her own son (Eloy Azorin) is killed on his 17th birthday. Determined to fulfill the boy’s final wish to know more about his father, she travels to Barcelona, hooking up with a menagerie of suffering souls to mother along the way. The skillful weave of theatricality and sentiment — not to mention the not-so-subtle references to American classics like All About Eve and A Streetcar Named Desire — has critics universally proclaiming Mother Almodovar’s creative zenith. ”Sometimes,” he says, ”I think all the other movies I’ve made helped me make this one.”