'Viva Pedro!' series grabs hold of life through the lens

The Baltimore Sun

One of the great tag lines of the first year of Saturday Night Live was Chevy Chase proclaiming on "Weekend Update," "Generalissimo Francisco Franco is still dead!" (He died in 1975.)

In a sense, that's what Pedro Almodovar was proclaiming throughout his early movies. Expressing the liberty his countrymen felt after the demise of Franco and his dictatorship, Almodovar told Variety's Madrid bureau chief, Peter Besas, "The characters in my films utterly break with the past."

He continued, "Pleasure must be grasped immediately, almost hedonistically. That is almost the main leitmotif of their lives. If there's a theme common to my films, it's a striving for absolute individual freedom carried to the extreme, and that may be considered a political position. That is what draws audiences, because in addition it is a position always expressed with lightheartedness, with humor."

A generation of American film students and art house habitues have grown up with Almodovar's later work: moody, sometimes tragic soap operas and melodramas, including Flower of My Secret (1995), Live Flesh (1997), All About My Mother (1999), Talk to Her (2002) and Bad Education (2004).

So it's welcome news that Viva Pedro!, a traveling eight-film retrospective that opens today for two weeks at the Charles, contains several of the spunky, reckless, genre-mixing early masterworks that to some of us still mark the pinnacle of his achievement. When Almodovar became an international name during the culturally dismal Reagan era, it was as if all the forces that made American movies so vital in the late 1960s and early '70s had re-emerged, stronger than ever, in Spain, including social effrontery, camp, a ravenous case of movie love, and a fearless disregard for the usual boundaries between artifice and reality or comedy and drama.

Fraulein Sally Bowles would have felt right at home in the divine decadence of my top three: Matador (1986), Law of Desire (1987) and Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown (1988, which kicks off Viva Pedro today). They're pop art puddings full of plums.

If there's one film audiences must see in Viva Pedro!, I think it's Law of Desire. Set in the homosexual and entertainment subcultures of 1980s Madrid, it's an inspired melange of comedy and suspense, with the great Carmen Maura as a transsexual actress -- the sister (that is, the former brother) of the hero.

Centered on a theater director named Pablo (played by Eusebio Poncela), who's also a writer-director of homoerotic films, it's full of fictions within fictions. It catches Spanish flies in Chinese boxes.

Pablo may be a cultural demigod (a stand-in for Almodovar himself), but he's also a shadowy character -- an extroverted narcissist whose amorous obsessions operate as a lifeline, then a death-line.

He fixates on a young working-man named Juan (Miguel Molina). At the same time, an upper-class kid named Antonio (the red-hot and sometimes hilarious Antonio Banderas) fixates on Pablo.

This isn't a triangle movie, exactly; it's mostly about Pablo, and how the other characters hesitate or scramble to fulfill his needs. Juan leaves Pablo to tend bar near a picturesque lighthouse; Antonio lusts for the bereft Pablo even more fiercely than Pablo lusts for Juan. When Pablo does sexually initiate Antonio, he turns on this clean-cut, alligator-shirt-clad kid with a galvanizing intensity. Antonio aims to neaten the mishmash of Pablo's art and life. He doesn't understand that Pablo's fleeting loves are as much a part of his creative compost as his scripts.

Almodovar's manner invites and transcends camp. There's something ludicrous about his characters' fervor: they're fools for lust. That goes double for Carmen Maura's transsexual, Tina. She resents Pablo for keeping snapshots that show her when she was his brother.

She's emerged as a woman with a do-it-yourself life that encompasses -- and transforms -- everything in her history. She treats the daughter of a former lesbian lover as her own; she even stays fond of the Catholic religion, in her own wacky fashion.

Maura's presence is so strong, she makes all of Tina's passions, no matter how outlandish, irrefutable. She has a top-heavy but chugging forward motion, like the little engine that could. Her broad features don't melt when they turn vulnerable or pliant: They heat up like molten metal. When the plot turns homicidal and the police grill her, she's able to gang up, all by herself, on the hard cop and the soft cop. She doesn't enjoy being a girl; she enjoys being a dame.

She's the perfect Almodovar character because she's as desperate to convey love as to experience it. On her way back from a performance with Pablo and Ada, she walks past two street cleaners; passing out from heat and post-theater excitement, she begs them to hose her down. Her four Spanish syllables -- "Riegame!" -- ring out like a sexual "Make my day": what she means is, "Spray me!"


All films are at The Charles.

Today to Monday:

Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown; All About My Mother

Tuesday to Thursday:

Talk to Her; Flower of My Secret

Oct. 6 to Oct. 9:

Live Flesh; Law of Desire

Oct. 10 to Oct. 12

Matador; Bad Education

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