World Cinema: Pedro Almodovar

In our latest World Cinema column, we salute the work of Spanish director Pedro Almodovar, and take a look back at 1997’s Live Flesh...

Live Flesh

A conversation in the pub the other night got me thinking. The conversation was about Pedro Almodovar, and the (as we thought) unfair critical reaction to Broken Embraces. It was unfair to judge the film on solely its own merits, as it many ways acts as a summation and retrospective of Almodovar’s previous body of work. It was, in fact, casting a look over the world he had created and letting the viewer remember their own individual past memories of this world.

This, in turn, led to a discussion about Almodovar’s legacy, and his influence on not just a generation of Spanish language filmmakers, but to an entire world audience.

For many viewers, the Spain of his movies is the reality of the country and that is the crux of where my thinking led. Is cinema, that ‘kingdom of shadows’ and ‘cousin of reality’ as Maxim Gorky and Daniel Frampton, respectively, put it, in actual fact more real to many than the physical places themselves?

To put two examples out there, for millions of people Brigitte Bardot is a real person, and Notting Hill looks exactly as it does in the Hugh Grant film of the same name. However, Bardot is merely a screen name, a celluloid construct which may bear little relation to the actual Camille Javal of her birth (a fact acknowledged and explored in Godard’s Le Mepris, which, in itself, is an exploration of the artifice of film).

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Similarly, the Notting Hill which can be found in London is clearly not the same place as Notting Hill, but I wonder if more people have seen the film than visited the place.

As in the case of Bardot, does this not make a case for the two screen constructs to, in fact, assert a more rigorous claim on the truth? Are they not, by virtue of having more people believe in them, actually reality?

It is a mind-bending question which has particular relevance to world cinema. As mentioned World Cinema: The box of (other) delights, it is the sense of ‘other’ which helps drive viewers to seek out world cinema. I, for one, love exploring new cultures and places found on-screen. But if the cinemas of these countries are as creative with their realities as I have shown my two examples to be, then what, indeed ,are they showing us?

I have never been to Japan, but I believe many have a similar idea of how it is as I do: full of schoolgirls, creepy ghosts/demons, Yakuza, and the occasional monster attack. Of course, I exaggerate for comedic effect, but my basic point remains the same.

This is a perception of reality that may bear little to no relation to the physical place. However, this should not mean that this version of Japan is in any way less real than, well, the real Japan. ‘Reel’ Japan (so to speak) is an idea, but one which has so much international cultural currency that it, in fact, becomes many peoples touchstone, and, indeed, how they view the country.

This is in no way a new theory, as Plato’s Theory of Forms attests to, but it’s one that I believe has found its apex and true realisation in the power of cinema.

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Many people joke that you don’t need to go on holiday as you can see everything on the Internet, but it is only with trans-global cinema that you can truly experience the world, and in a way which is as valuable and truthful as visiting the place.

If cinema can make the landscapes of history past and present come alive, then surely they can make somewhere a mere thousand miles or so seem genuine? Indeed, can it not be more real than reality?

Looking Forward

Eccentricities Of A Blonde-haired Girl

To celebrate his 100th birthday (yes, you read that correctly), the acclaimed Portuguese director Manoel de Oliveira has crafted this small gem of a film, based on a 19th century novel by Eça de Queiroz. At just over an hour long, it frames a flashback tale of a man’s world turned upside down by a woman he sees across the street. Seemingly innocent actions have repercussions, and the entire exudes a dreamlike quality.

Gorgeously framed and gently played out, this is a film which will softly seduce you, then let you go without asking too much of an emotional commitment. 

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Released 6th August (UK)

Looking Back

To go back to my original example, this week I’m taking a look at a less celebrated Almodovar work.

Live Flesh (directed  Pedro Almodovar, 1997)

Based improbably on a Ruth Rendell novel, Live Flesh was the first Almodovar film I ever watched, and I was immediately entranced by his work. I didn’t understand all the subtext, the inherent politics or the auteur nature of the work, but I fell in love with his command of character, and how the labyrinth intricacies of human nature were laid bare by him.

The plot is a typical interweaving of many lives, in this case beginning with the birth of Victor during Franco’s state of emergency, and showing how, as a grown-up man, his fate is linked to that of Elena, a junkie daughter of a politician.

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Following a tense stand-off between the two, policeman Sancho and David become involved, leading to the shooting and paralysing of David. Years (and a prison sentence for Victor) later, their lives once again become entwined as secrets are revealed and the relationships of protagonists are fully explored. To reveal anymore would, unfortunately, spoil it.

In amongst the usual visual flourishes and innovative transitions, are the ever-present themes of contradictions, sexual perversion and the emergence of a new Spain, a free Spain. This last permeates everything else, as all else feeds into it, much like the characters lives are changed, and remade by the shooting, so Spain is no longer the fascist fairytale of Franco, but instead free to make its own choices, its own mistakes and its own future.

It is a mature work, which acts on multiple levels and demands attention from all fans of film.