Film & TV

Pedro Almodóvar's Forgotten Films: Five of the Spanish Maestro's Best Comedies

Before he was one of cinema's finest dramatists (All About My Mother, Talk to Her, Volver, Broken Embraces), writer-director Pedro Almodóvar was a provocateur and a satirist. The 63-year-old filmmaker harks back to that past with his first comedy in nearly 25 years, I'm So Excited!, a lighthearted, ensemble-driven bit of escapism set 30,000 feet in the air.

Over the past two decades, Almodóvar's early comedies have gradually become the prolific director's hidden oeuvre, having been eclipsed by his elegantly garish melodramas. But longtime fans know that the filmmaker first came by his international renown with a comedy, Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, and that those early, darkly comic films from the 1980s -- about heartbroken but tenacious women, ditzily fun nymphomaniacs, sexually obsessed killers, and, most daringly, los gays -- are his major contribution to the boundary-pushing milieu of Spain's post-dictatorship era and to the shaping of European cinema and culture today.

However calculated to push buttons and break taboos, Almodóvar's comedies provide his female and gay protagonists with satisfying character arcs (and hilariously catty put-downs), offering a much-needed alternative to the redemption-of-an-asshole joke machines Hollywood turns out. By catching up with his comedies, we can appreciate a master auteur's artistic development, and discover how he's refashioned his recurring themes and tropes into dramatic material in his later films.

Here are the ones to watch:

Dark Habits (1983)

Cinema has yet to do justice to the spate of politically progressive nuns who are challenging the no-homo bromance of the Vatican, but Almodóvar's third feature comes close. Nominally about a nightclub singer (Cristina Sánchez Pascual) hiding out in a convent from thugs (nearly a decade before Whoopi Goldberg picked up her rosary in Sister Act), this black comedy is really centered on a group of secretly badass nuns who tame tigers, write bestselling erotic novels, and have affairs with other women -- or priests. Since Almodóvar has the Catholic Church in his sights, the nuns are revealed to be nihilists who aren't above proclaiming that Christ's blood is baked into their pies or selling hard drugs to pay the rent on their convent. If sometimes shocking for its own sake, the film eventually finds its satirical edge in specificity, as when it parodies the self-mortifying practices of holy persons with names like Sister Sewer Rat, Sister Manure, and Sister Damned, or in the religious mysticism of a nun who induces "visions" with LSD.

Most outrageous moment: Mother Superior (Julieta Serrano) attempts to seduce the troubled singer by sharing her heroin.

Political provocation: You can bet that the same institution that once had a list of books its members weren't allowed to read wasn't too happy about the depiction of drug-addicted lesbian nuns from a formerly ultra-Catholic country.

Quote: "You look lovely this morning. There's so much beauty in physical deterioration."

What Have I Done to Deserve This? (1984)

Family and sex coexist uncomfortably in this working-class, femme-empowerment tale. In the opening scenes, Gloria (Carmen Maura), a cleaning woman, attempts to add some spice to her life by accepting an offer of casual sex at work. Too bad the guy can't get it up, forcing her to slump home more dejected than ever to her cramped apartment, domineering husband, cranky mother-in-law, and two distant teenage sons. Gloria's slow crawl out of the rut of daily humiliations and 18-hour workdays ends with a sudden burst of violence, a dramatic climax leavened by the comings (ahem) and goings of the sweet hooker (Verónica Forqué) next door. (Oh yeah, there's also a subplot involving Hitler.)

Most outrageous moment: Flush with cash, Gloria's 14-year-old drug-dealing son (Juan Martínez) hires his prostitute neighbor to have sex with his gay older brother, Miguel (Miguel Ángel Herranz).

Political provocation: Though she's pretty competent in most aspects of her life, Gloria spontaneously arranges to have Miguel "adopted" by an obviously pedophilic dentist (Javier Gurruchaga).

Quote: Upon returning home after a few months of living with the dentist, Miguel to his mother: "At first it was fun. But I'm too young to tie myself down with anyone." They grow up so fast!

Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown (1989)

Men are the cause of, but hardly the solution to, all of life's problems in the screwball farce that made Almodóvar a name and Antonio Banderas a rising star. But the film really belongs to Carmen Maura, never better as Pepa, a TV actress desperate to give her elusive married ex, Iván (Fernando Guillén), some urgent news, if he'd ever call her back. All Pepa wants is to wallow in self-pity (and some barbiturate-laced gazpacho) until that call, but her idiot friend Candela (María Barranco) shows up needing protection from her own ex, as does Iván's awkward, horny, hot-as-hell son, Carlos (Banderas in Harry Potter glasses). The most action-packed of all his films, Women on the Verge is perhaps also the purest distillation of Almodóvarian feminism (see below).

Most outrageous moment: Tired of answering questions about her private life during a (legitimate) terrorism investigation, Pepa and her friends knock out some cops with the mickeyed gazpacho.

Political provocation: Not for the first or last time, Almovar stymies his second-waver fans with an exceptional, almost all-female cast -- and an unflattering caricature of a harpy feminist.

Quote: A detergent commercial starring Pepa: "Hello. I'm the mother of the notorious Crossroads Killer. When my son comes home from one of his famous crimes, his clothes are just filthy. [She holds up a white shirt soaked in blood.] What a shame, no?"

Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! (1990)

Despite what the title suggests, this dark romantic comedy isn't about a power bottom, but a codependent couple brought together by Stockholm Syndrome. Updating the marriage via abduction plot, the film unites sexy but unhinged Ricky (Antonio Banderas in what would be his last role for the director for 20 years) and hard-living actress Marina (Victoria Abril), first in a violent kidnapping, then in a loving relationship. Though physically at his mercy, Marina is able to channel Ricky's romantic intensity into scoring prescription painkillers for her on the street -- or die trying. Though more schematic in plot structure than his other films (boy meets girl, boy kidnaps girl, girl loves boy eventually for some reason), Tie Me Up! achieves a rare alchemy by making the couple's first sexual encounter so hilarious and tender that this twisted love story overcomes its skeevy beginnings.

Most outrageous moment: Though it's full of quirkily sensual scenes, none is as weirdly delightful as when Marina's film character fights off her undead leather-daddy stalker by lassoing him with a red telephone wire.

Political provocation: Women's groups were less than thrilled about a romanticized courtship begun in violence, but their indignation was no match for that of the MPAA, which nailed the film with an X rating. After a lawsuit by Miramax (remember those guys?) and protests from filmmakers, the MPAA created and gave the film the new rating of NC-17 to distinguish it from porn.

Sample quote: "I love him." "How can you love a kidnapper who tied you to the bed? ... You can't be that kinky."

I'm So Excited! (2013)

Is Almodóvar still necessary? The director recently outed his new midair disaster comedy as his "gayest film ever," but it isn't any more politically or aesthetically subversive than the rest of his oeuvre. If anything, it goes only where Almodóvar has gone before, from his familiar cast (even Penélope Cruz and Antonio Banderas make cameos), retro-bright palette, and all-out musical sequences (one guess as to which song they use). Thankfully, I'm So Excited! is able to elide that key question by being entertaining as hell, a mixture of comedy and suspense about a trio of gay stewards (the phrase "flight attendant" is too politically correct here), a pair of manly, bi-curious pilots, and a handful of business-class passengers, all of whom realize that their plane is unlikely to land in one piece. Understandably, the passengers, including a mysterious Anna Wintour-type (Cecilia Roth), attempt to settle their affairs before the fuel runs out, but the stewards just want to give everyone (their version of) a good send-off.

Most outrageous moment: To avoid spoilers, we'll merely mention that a mucho campy pantomime early in the film that makes a mini-pageant of the pre-flight safety demonstration by the flamboyantly bored stewards is to die for.

Political provocation: Despite previous failed attempts, Almodóvar continues to try mining black humor out of nonconsensual sex. (He doesn't fail outright this time.)

Sample quote: A steward, pouring a shot before heading out to the main cabin: "I need a booster to face those savages." His colleague: "When you start acting the heroine, you scare me."

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Inkoo Kangis a regular film contributor at Voice Media Group. VMG publications include Denver Westword, Miami New Times, Phoenix New Times, Dallas Observer, Houston Press and New Times Broward-Palm Beach.

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