The Almodóvar Project

When it comes to modern Spanish film, the first name that pops into everyone’s mind is Pedro Almodóvar.  The name Almodóvar is bound to strike a strong reaction from people in Spain, as they either love him or hate him. Just who is this man who has won three Oscars and turned a girl from Alcobendas into an international superstar (Penélope Cruz) and a boy from Málaga into another international superstar (Antonio Banderas)?

Almodóvar was born in Calzada de Calatrava, a small village of 4155 habitants (2014 figures) in Ciudad Real on Sept. 25, 1949. He moved to Madrid in the 1970s and took part in Los Goliardos, a theatre group, where he met actress Carmen Maura. While working for Telefónica, Spain’s biggest telephone company, he began to make short films which received a lot of play from Madrid’s alternative circuit. He made his first feature film in 16 mm in 1980, Pepi, Luci Bom y otras chicas del montón. The themes of female strength, empowerment, friendship and triumph over hard circumstances found in this film became a staple in virtually all his films.

Almodóvar began to grow in popularity as the movida madrileña grew. In 1988, Mujeres al borde de ataque de nervios (Women on the Edge of a Nervous Breakdown) became his breakthough international hit. Starring Carmen Maura and a young Antonio Banderas, the film depicts two wacky days of the life of Pepa, a voice actress and the surrealism of Madrid life in the 1980s.

In the 1990s, Almodóvar broke away from his typical comedy to make women-centred dramas. In 1999, Todo sobre mi madre (All About My Mother) won the Oscar for Best Foreign Film and introduced Penélope Cruz, who had a supporting part, to a wider audience. The film is about a woman who goes back to Barcelona to find the father of her recently deceased son after 17 years of life in Madrid. It stars Argentine actress and frequent Almodóvar collaborator Cecilia Roth.

He won the Best Original Screenplay Oscar in 2002 for Hable con ella (Talk to Her), a film Spain didn’t even submit as a Best Foreign Film contender. (Los lunes al sol, really? It isn’t bad, but not as good as this one!) The film is about a friendship that develops two men visiting women in comas.

Volver in 2006 brought Penélope Cruz back to Spain and was quite successful. It gained her an Oscar nomination.

Even his most dramatic films have their zany moments. His films depict strong women or characters on the margins of society (gays, transsexuals, prostitutes, drug addicts). Long before Felicity Huffman excelled in Transamerica, Antonia San Juan excelled as Agrado in Todo sobre mi madre.

Almodóvar’s 20th film is set for release in March, right before Spain’s biggest holiday, Semana Santa (Holy Week/Easter Week). It appears to be a return to his later form, where as 2013’s Los amantes pasajeros is seen as a failed attempt to return to his screwball 80’s style.

To honour this remarkable occasion, I will be revisiting each Almodóvar film every Thursday. Don’t worry, the travel and hiking entries will continue every Monday (and if I am trapped by the incessant Basque rain this winter, there will be some aspect of Spanish life explored). However, I do consider Spanish cinema an important part of Spanish life (even if every Spaniard, Basque and Catalán I have ever met has told me Spanish film is horrible, they still talk about their successful films.)  I had a course on Spanish cinema in university and before then, used Spanish films to learn Spanish.

I will review the films one at a time, rating them and including a checklist of the usual Almodóvar film staples (poisoned gazpacho) and listing the Chicas Almodóvar. I hope you join me on my journey over the next 19 weeks, leading up to the release of Silencio in March.

Cuando alguien habla del cine español moderno, el primer nombre que llega a la mente es Pedro Almodóvar. El nombre Almodóvar provoca una reacción fuerte a cualquier persona de España, como siempre les encanta o le odian. ¿Quién es este hombre que ha ganado tres Oscares y ha ayudado llegar a fama internación a una chica de Alcobendas y un chico de Málaga? (Penélope Cruz y Antonio Banderas).

Almodóvar nació en Calzada de Calatrava, un pueblo de 4155 habitantes (según cifras de 2014) en Ciudad Real el 25 de septiembre, 1949. Se trasladó a Madrid en los años 70 y participó en Los Goliardos, un grupo de teatro, donde conoció a la actriz Carmen Maura. Mientras trabajaba por Telefónica, empezó a grabar cortes con un cámera Super 8. Esas películas eran popular en el circuito alternativo madrileño. Hizo su primera película de 16 mm en 1980, Pepi, Luci, Bom y otras chicas del montón. Los temas de fortaleza feminina, amistad y triumfo sobre circumstancías imposibles encontrados en este película vuelven en casí todas sus películas. 

Cada vez más Almodóvar se hizo más popular como creció la movida madrileña. En 1988, Mujeres al borde de ataque de nervios, le dio una fama interanciónal. Carmen Maura era la protagonista y un joven Antonio Banderas tenía un papel pequeño. Se trata de dos días raros de la actriz de doblaje Pepa y el surrealismo de la vida madrileña de los años 80.  

En los años 90, Almodóvar empezó a hacer dramas centradas en mujeres fuertes en lugar de sus comedias surrealistas de los años 80. En 1999, Todo sobre mi madre ganó el Oscar para Mejor Film Extranjero y presentó al mundo Penélope Cruz, que tenía un papel pequeño. El film se trata de una mujer que volvió a Barcelona después de 17 años para buscar el padre de su hijo que se ha muerto. Se interpreta la protagonista la acriz argentina y amiga de Almodóvar Cecilia Roth. 

Ganó el Oscar por Mejor Guion Original en 2002 para Hable con ella, un film que España ni consideró para la categoría de Mejor Película Extranjera en los Oscar. (Submitió Los lunes al sol, que no está mal pero no es tan buena como esta peli.) La película se trata de un amistad entre dos hombres visitando mujeres en comas en el hospital. 

Volver en 2006 trajo Penélope Cruz a España otra vez y tenía mucho exitó. Penélope era nominada por un Oscar por su papel.

Incluso en sus pelis más drámaticas hay momentos chiflados. Sus films muestran mujeres fuertes o personajes en los margines de la sociedad (gays, transexuales, prostitutas, drogadictos). Mucho tiempo antes de Felicity Huffman sobresalió en Transamerica, Antonia San Juan sobresalió como Agrado en Todo sobre mi madre

La vigésima peli de Almodóvar estrena en marzo, justo antes de Semana Santa. Parece una vuelta a su estilo de los años 2000 en lugar de su estilo de los 80, como su última película fracasada Los amantes pasajeros en 2013. 

Para honrar esta ocasción, voy a ver de nueva cada peli de Almodóvar todos los jueves. No te preocupes, las entradas sobre viajar y senderismo seguirán cada lunes (y si estoy atrapado en casa para la lluvia vasca sin cese, escribiré de algo sobre la vida española. Sin embargo, considero el cine español una parte importante de la cultura española, aunque todos los españoles, vascos y catalanes que he conocido hablan mal de su cine. En la universidad tenía un curso de cine español y antes de ello, siempre vi pelis españolas para aprender castellano. 

Criticaré las pelis una a la vez, y voy a darles una nota y comentar cuales elementos de Almodóvar tiene cada una. ¿El gazpacho lleva venano? También nombraré las Chicas Almodóvar de la peli. Espero que os apuntéis a mi viaje del mundo Almodóvar durante las próximas 19 semanas hasta el estreno de Silenco en marzo.

Movie review: Ma Ma.

Julio Medem (San Sebastián-Donostia 1958) is, in my opinion, one of Spain’s best directors. He is the master who directed Vacas (1991), La ardilla roja (1993), Tierra (1996), Los amantes del círculo polar (1998), Lucía y el sexo (2001), Caótica Ana (2007) and Habitación en Roma (2010). He also directed the 2003 documentary La pelota vasca about the political problems in the Basque Country. Julio Medem (San Sebastián-Donostia 1958) es, en mi opinion, uno de los mejores directores españoles. Es el genio que dirigió Vacas, La ardilla roja, Tierra, Los amantes del círculo polar, Lucía y el sexo, Caótica Ana y Habitación en Roma. También es el director de documental de 2003 La pelota vasca que se trata de los problemas políticos en el País vasco. 

It’s been five long years since Habitación en Roma, and Medem has returned with his first collaboration with the Oscar winning actress Penélope Cruz. Like other auteur directors Pedro Almodóvar and Woody Allen, he is able to bring her to a subperb performance that should probably bring her another Goya (Spain’s Oscar) nomination if not fourth win overall. It could even bring about the attention of Oscar. However, it’s difficult to predict the politics of these awards, and as Spain has decided that it will not be one of the films to represent the country at the Oscars this year, another Oscar nomination for Penélope isn’t likely. Also, the fact that it’s not doing well at the Spanish box office is not a good sign. Ya hace cinco años largos desde el estreno de Habitación en Roma, y Medem vuelve con su primera colaboración con la ganadora de Oscar y Goya Penélope Cruz. Como otros directors del cine de auteur Pedro Almodóvar y Woody Allen, saca una actuación estupenda que debería llevarle otra nominación de Goya e igual podría ganar otra Goya. También podría atraer la atención de los Oscars. Sin embargo, es difícil pronosticar la política de esos premios, y como España ha decidido que Ma Ma no representará a España en los Oscars, otra nominación de Oscar para Penélope no es probable. Y como está fracasando en la taquilla española, no es buen señal. 

Penélope plays Magda, an unemployed teacher who has recently separated from her husband. Magda goes in as she found a lump in her breast and fears for the worst. The worst is true, breast cancer (referred to in Spain as cáncer de mamá). She goes about her business, a trip to the salon for a haircut and watching her son’s football (soccer) match and tries to put it out of her mind. Penélope interpreta Magda, una maestra en paro que está separada de su marido. Magda va para un chequeo después de encontrar algo sospecho en su pecho y tema el peor. El peor es la verdad: cáncer de mamá. Intenta vivir normalmente, va a la peluquería y al partido de fútbol de su hijo e intenta olvidarse.

At the football match, she meets Arturo, a recruiter for Real Madrid (the worst part of the film. Força Barça!) , played by one of Spain’s most popular and reliable actors, Luis Tosar. He gets the call that his wife is in a coma and the odds don’t look good. Magda accompanies him to the hospital. Durante el equipo de fútbol, conoce a Arturo, un ojeador para Real Madrid (la peor parte de la peli. FORÇA BARÇA!). Arturo es interpretado por Luis Tosar, un actor español popular. 

SPOILER ALERT: Magda and Arturo develop a relationship after her treatment for cancer appears successful and Arturo’s wife passes away. It is from this relationship and successful treatment that teaches Magda how to live and what’s important in life. However, is the treatment as successful as she thought? SPOILER ALERT: Magda y Arturo empiezan una relación después de su tratamiento de cáncer aparece tener exitó y la mujer de Arturo fallece. Es de esa relación y después del tratamiento que enseña a Magda lo que es realmente vivir y lo importante de la vida. Pero…¿el tratamiento tenía exitó de verdad?

The film is beautifully shot, and it ranks as one of Medem’s best in his impeccable pedigree. Like almost all his films, it stayed with me long after the film ended and I had left the cinema. Penélope’s performance as Magda might rank as her best performance yet, but I also say that being a total Penélope fanboy. La película es preciosa, y es una de las mejores de Medem. Como en la mayoria de sus pelis, ha quedado en mi mente durante mucho tiempo después de salir del cine. La actuación de Penélope puede ser su mejor, aunque soy superfan de Penélope y tengo bias.

Over the next few weeks, I’m going to revisit the films of Medem and why he is one of my top 5 Spanish directors. Hey, I gotta do something while battling a cold and when the rain is keeping me from being out in nature as I’d like! Durante las próximas semanas, voy a revisitar los films de Medem y acordarme porque es uno de mis directors españoles preferidos. Ey, he de hacer algo mientras recupero de un mal resfriado y cuando la lluvia me atrapa en casa. 

Dear readers: Do you have any favourite Spanish directors and/or films? After I finish revisiting Medem, I do plan to take a look at Almódovar and Luis Buñuel. (Buñuel is Spanish, born in Spain, exiled from Spain, criticized the religion of Spain in Viridianaetc. France and Mexico both rightly want to take credit for him, but he is most definitely a Spanish director!) Queridos lectores: ¿Tienes un (a) director(a) español (a) o una película preferida española? Después de rever Medem, quiero volver a ver las pelis de Almódovar y ver y rever las películas de Luis Buñuel (que sí que sí es director español y no frances ni mexicano como esos países quieren llamarle).

Here is the trailer (in Spanish) for Ma Ma. Aquí tenéis el trailer para Ma Ma en castellano. 

Spanish Director Spotlight: Victor Erice

I’ve been debating for a long while now about dedicating some entries to some of the amazing Spanish cinema and literature out there. Don’t worry. I’ll still be writing about the infinite beautiful and intriguing places Spain has to offer. At the same time, I’d like an excuse to explore and re-explore some of the amazing directors and writers out there.

I could easily start with one of the more famous directors like Pedro Almódovar or Luis Buñuel, and I’ll probably write about both soon enough. However, I thought to kick off this series, I’d go with a lesser, important director: Victor Erice.

Victor Erice was born in 1940 in Karranza in Vizcaya. I never knew he was Basque until now.  He studied at the Universidad Complutense of Madrid. Although he’s only made three major movies, his films are widely regarded in the world of cinema, especially Spanish Cinema. Whereas other Spanish directors like Almódovar, Buñuel, and Álex de la Iglesia are known for flashy, provocative productions often involving over the top imagery (and poisoned gazpacho. Never, ever drink the gazpacho!), Erice’s films are quiet, calm productions full of beautiful cinematography and metaphors.

My introduction to Erice came in my Spanish Cinema class in 2007. My first viewing of the film El espiritú de la colmena (“The Spirit of the Beehive”) (1973), I thought “This is the most boring film I have ever seen.” I’m pretty sure that before I went to class, I drank a large cup of vanilla latte or white chocolate mocha to stay awake to discuss it. However, our class discussion was so interesting I needn’t have drunk the extra caffeine. The film is a Pandora’s Box of metaphors about the Franco Regime. Made during the last years of Franco’s dictatorship, El espiritú de la colmena had to be told with metaphors to escape the censorship of the time.

The desolate, isolated landscape of the movie could easily represent the isolation of Spain during the early part of Franco’s dictatorship before he decided to exploit Spain as different for tourism pesetas, dollars, pounds, francs and marks and the desolation represents the bleakness of his government. Frankenstein’s monster (note the Frank in this name) plays a major role in the unfolding of the flick. Was this his subtle way of calling Franco a monster? Were the Spanish citizens the bees trapped in the beehives yearning to escape this oppressive regime? The wind blows through the film quite often. Perhaps even a scene where the smoke from the train hide a women might show how hidden women were during the Franco regime. Or perhaps my Hispanic Studies degree is making me see things.

The film takes place in the years right after the Spanish Civil War. Elsewhere in Europe, World War II was wrecking havoc as Spain struggled to reconstruct. In a small village in a place in La Meseta whose name Erice didn’t want to reveal, we find ourselves witnessing the story of two sisters, Ana and Isabel. (All the principal actors use their real-life names because it confused young actress Ana Torrent to call them by two names, according to Erice and IMDB’s trivia.) When the sisters experience the traveling cinema version of Frankenstein, young Ana is scared the monster is real. Although Isabel tells her the film is fake, Ana communicates with the spirit of the monster and believes he is living in an abandoned sheep shed. In reality, a Republican soldier returning from war has made it his makeshift home. Ana brings him food and her father’s coat. However, the returning soldier is shot by Franco’s soldier’s one night.  Ana’s father is a beekeeper, and her mother is remembering an old love. I won’t reveal the end, but that mushroom her father points out on a Sunday stroll, along with Frankenstein, come into play.

It’s important to note that the family is never shown together. (To show how broken Spain is under Franco?)

This isn’t a film for anyone who needs a lot of action or dialogue in their movies. It’s a very quiet, introspective film that stays with you a long time after viewing. It was voted #2 in 1996’s list of 100 Spanish films.

Here’s a link to the trailer in Spanish.

His next film, El Sur, (The South) (1983), didn’t suffer the censorship of the Franco era, and Erice could’ve gone wild. This was the time of the infamous movida Madrileña and the time Pedro Almódovar was starting to become the star of post-Franco Spanish cinema. However, he stayed loyal to his art, making another slow film set during the early years of Franco (this time the 1950’s). While it’s much more accessible to viewers (more explicit than implicit storytelling), it still features stunning cinematography and a great story about a small family living in the north of Spain. It was filmed in Estella, Navarra and Ezcaray, La Rioja and is based on a short story by Adelaida García Morales.

Estrella (Star in Spanish) is eight when her family relocates from the south of Spain to the north. Her grandmother and a family friend visit her for her first communion, and she falls in love with the South. Her dad has a secret, an ex lover who is now a small-time actress, although Estrella doesn’t come to understand this until later. She just wonders who “Irene Ríos” is. The movie skips a few years with her riding her bike into the distance with a puppy, and then returning with the adult dog. She learns the truth about her father and the film ends with her decision to visit the south (Sevilla).

If the ending seems abrupt, it’s because Erice orginally had planned to film her visit to the South. The producer decided the film worked as it was, and the second half wasn’t filmed.  It was voted the sixth best Spanish film in 1996’s celebration of 100 years of movies.

It’s not the official trailer, but here is a short montage of scenes from the film.

He also completed a documentary in 1992, El sol del membrillo (Dream of Light) about a painter’s (Antonio López) quest to paint a quince tree. Perhaps a metaphor of this film would be watching a man paint a tree for two hours is similar to watching Spain try to emerge victorious from the “catastrophe of 1898” and still trying in 2015. [/end internet sarcasm font].

Erice’s films speak volumes about Francoist-era Spain and offer an alternative to the typical Spanish film one might have in mind after seeing Almódovar, de la Iglesia, Buñuel or Ocho Apellidos Vascos.

Three wild movies: Into the Wild, Wild and The Way.

It’s been raining nonstop (there was a 5 day hiatus early in March and a three one the first week of the year, and a few hours here and there but not many) since November in the Basque Country, and I’m just itching to get back out there in the beautiful nature that surrounds me. They say it wouldn’t be as beautiful without the rain, but enough is enough. Even Noah’s flood stopped after 40 days and 40 nights! So as I’m “haciendo tiempo” (killing time is “making time” in Spanish) until the sun returns (most likely during my trip to Italia next month), I’ve been watching a lot of films. As I have no new place to write about and definitely haven’t been out on the Camino as I have no waterproof stuff, I thought I’d take the opportunity to write about three movies about man and woman against the natural world.

Into the Wild (2007, Sean Penn) I read the even better book last year and tried watching the film then, but the book was still too fresh in my mind. For those not familiar with the true story of Alex Supertramp (born Christopher McCandless), it doesn’t have a happy ending (spoiler alert). Alex literally burned his money to live a life of a tramp, out in the wilderness, taking odd jobs here and there to get to the next place calling his name. He wasn’t happy with the status quo and believed that life was better living off of nature. Many people called him selfish and immature, while others call him a hero. He did abandon his family without much thought, but those familiar with the movie alone may not know the back story of an unhappy childhood.

Alex’s goal was Alaska to live off the land. Preparing himself financially and learning how to live off the land as well as he could in a short time’s notice, he found his way to Alaska and found an old abandoned bus. The river grew with the melting snow, and he found himself isolated and trapped, not knowing the ways or directions. His cause of death is a mystery, though the film showing him eating the wrong berries is most likely not the case. The book suggests eating the seeds of something, but studies suggest it was eating mold on one of the plants.

While the outcome of the story is not the one I’d want, his tale did inspire me when I read it and once again when I watched the film this weekend. I wish I had the cojones (see, we do use that expression in English, españoles) to just go out into a cabin in the woods somewhere (not an abandoned bus as I am not brave/brazen as Alex Supertramp) and live off the land, isolated. Is Supertramp right? Is a simpler life a happier one? I know I do enjoy turning off the 4G when I’m out hiking. However, I also agree that no man is an island, as much as some of us try.

It’s a great read, and the film was also a great watch. I just wish it had ended happier for his family and the people he encountered along the way. By the way, those of you who follow me on Twitter (@ setmeravelles), I’m Pablo Supertramp there to honour Alex Supertramp.

Wild (2014, Jean-Marc Vallée) I nearly missed this film because I’m not a fan of Reese Witherspoon, who was grossly miscast as Cheryl Strayed. Based on Strayed’s memoir Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail about herexperiences on the Pacific Crest Trail, the film shows us her struggles to overcome herself as she overcomes the trail’s obstacles which include winter, being a woman hiking alone through some sketchy parts of the West Coast, wilderness. I do believe Witherspoon was miscast. However, that didn’t deter from my enjoyment of the film. It has a more positive ending than Into the Wild and is based on a true story from 1995. I look forward reading the book. Part of doing the Camino de Santiago is overcoming my own self (anxiety, depression) and finding my true self, so I relate to that part of it. I just read that my fave writer Nick Hornby wrote the script, which makes my love for this film make even more sense.

The Way (2010, Emilio Estévez) Of the three films, The Way might be the lesser known, but it’s my personal fave. Based in part on star Martin Sheen’s driven Camino with grandson Taylor and in part on Jack Hitt’s Off the Road: A Modern-Day Walk Down the Pilgrim’s Route into Spain, this film is one of my fave films ever. It’s about a doctor whose estranged son dies on his first day doing the Camino. The doctor finds himself doing the Camino after going to France to pick up the ashes of his late son. With every passing step on the way to Santiago, he grieves his son and finds out he has strength he didn’t know he had. Yeah, cliché, but the film rises above it thanks to awesome supporting characters (the good kind of quirky) and the beauty of Spain seen from the French Camino. It’s inspiring to a quasi pilgrim (please let me have the funds to finish the Camino this summer!) , and it shows how the Camino brings people from all walks of life together.

What are some of your favourite films while dealing with the rainy day blues? What about favourite films about man versus nature (or himself?)