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Interview with Pedro Almódovar! You could follow in this auteur’s footsteps by entering our latest contests RIGHT HERE! A featured article from the WriteMovies archive first published November 2006 by Pam Grady.


The Man from La Mancha

Friday, November 3, 2006

Spanish auteur Pedro Almódovar was not tilting at windmills when he took Penélope Cruz and Carmen Maura to his childhood home to make the celebrated Volver.

By Pam Grady

Back problems plagued Pedro Almódovar during this year’s Toronto International Film Festival, where his delicious, buoyant Volver screened as a gala presentation. So uncomfortable was he at Sony Classics’ dinner at Michelle’s Brasserie that he and his party, including star Penélope Cruz, left early so that he could seek relief from the Toronto Maple Leafs team doctor. But two days later, as he chatted with FilmStew in a Yorkville hotel suite, his discomfort appeared to have retreated and in its place, the filmmaker’s natural ebullience shown through.

And why not? Almodovar has been on a roll these last several years and Volver only adds to the streak. The director won the screenwriting prize at Cannes and his ensemble of actresses headed by Cruz and Carmen Maura took the Best Actress prize there. More recently, the Hollywood Awards rewarded the film with the Hollywood World Award and named Cruz Best Actress. And the Oscar buzz is starting to build.

The film is special for Almódovar for more personal reasons. It marks the first time he has worked with his close friend Cruz since 1999’s All About My Mother. It has been even longer since he last directed Maura. Eighteen years passed between their triumph together in Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown and Volver and it has been a joyful reunion.

“What I recovered was very moving,” Almodovar explains. “She is the kind of actress who is perfect for me. She has qualities I really love in an actress. I also discovered that we have the same chemistry as before and that was very moving.”

In the film, which blends magical realism, melodrama, and helium-light comedy, Maura plays Cruz’s mother, a woman who died in a fire years ago who returns to her family determined to reconnect. For Cruz, it is not just a return to working with her beloved Almodovar, the filmmaker she first dreamed of collaborating with in her teens when she fell in love with his Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!, but also a return to her native Spain after several years of working in Hollywood and elsewhere in Europe. Her reward for this homecoming has been – in addition to the aforementioned prizes – some of the best notices of her career.

“I knew she could do this work,” Almodovar says. “Even in Spain, where they know her, they were surprised that she could give this performance in this type of role that is not supposed to be for her. She’s a young, very stylized woman, but now that I know her, I know that these type of characters, they are better for her. The more distance she has from a character, the better she is.”

The 57-year-old filmmaker sounds like a proud papa when he discuses Cruz, which is fitting, as he reveals, “Penélope trusts me as if I were her father, or even more than that. That is fortunate, because I can ask her anything and she’ll do it. At the same time, it’s a big responsibility for me, because it puts in my hands a power that I have to handle with lots of care. We’ve had a very intense relationship for the past 12 years, even when she is in Hollywood. I love her deeply.”

To give himself this opportunity to reunite with these actresses that have been so important to him meant that Almodovar had to take a look back at his own childhood in La Mancha. It has been only in the past couple of years that he has stopped to consider that part of his life.

“I never look back at my childhood,” Almódovar insists. “That is a door that I closed – I suppose that I didn’t like it. But this movie is a result of looking back and it s really the story of the strong women I was educated by. I was thinking more about my childhood, even though there is no child in the movie. But it’s based on the memories that I have as a child in my little village.”

“Volver is the most local movie that I’ve made,” he adds. “I was just thinking about the patio of my home and of that neighborhood and of the women that were around, my mother. It happens to be a small place, even for Spain.”

“In the rest of Spain, they can’t even appreciate the language, because the language is very different from the Spanish you hear in Madrid or Catalonia or Galicia or what you hear in the south,” he adds. “It’s very specific language. So it became smaller than my other movies.”

“I asked myself and my brother [Agustin, his producer], ‘I don’t know if this is too local for everyone.’ But you never know. The results demonstrate that the more private, the more personal, the better you can be understood outside.”

In conversation, Almódovar returns again and again to the topic of women. If it was not evident enough from his movies, listening to him expound on one of his favorite subjects makes it clear how much he loves and admires them. The cinematic model, to be sure, in the case of Volver, it is the women, specifically the housewives, who people the Italian neorealism of the ’40s and ’50s that inspired him.

The great Anna Magnani appears in one scene in a clip from Luchino Visconti’s Bellissima, while the director admits that Cruz’s look in the movie was inspired by Sophia Loren, another ravishing woman who excelled at playing everyday people. But he admits that a stronger influence has simply been the women that he has known throughout his life, particularly his mother and the other women he grew up around and considers his role models, and then the women who were in his life when his career first got underway in the 1970s and ’80s.

“They were strong. They were survivors,” he says.

Almódovar relishes the freedom he has to create in Spain. When the subject of whether or not he would consider working in Hollywood comes up, he adamantly rejects the idea. He has heard the stories from other filmmakers of the compromises made necessary by a system that has never really recognized the idea of the author.

“When I talk to directors in Hollywood, there are so many people giving their opinions, powerful opinions, the director is one of, say, 15 people making the decisions on any one movie,” he suggests. “It’s not a question of power, but I’m the owner of the game. It’s not a question of being the author or having the power, but a movie needs one creator, even if you are mistaken, it’s a coherent mistake.”

Besides, he continues, “I don’t have a dream to make a big budget movie. This is something I would absolutely avoid. It’s not my cup of tea. My ambition is to be completely bold in the stories I tell.”

Even as Almódovar expresses his reservations about Hollywood, he bristles at the suggestion that somehow his oeuvre has come to represent Spanish film to many outside of the country. “I am Spanish. I can’t help it,” he declares. “I am very faithful to myself and the culture I was born into. But I don’t want the responsibility to have to represent my country.”

“ I mean, I represent myself,” adds Almódovar. “I’m Spanish; I was born in La Mancha; I was living in Madrid, a very crazy, modern life when democracy started 30 years ago. I represent myself and the people around me, but Spain is as rich as any other country. There is a part of Spain that I don’t represent and also that I don’t want to represent.”

“I’m just trying to be the most myself that I can as a person, as a director, as a citizen, so I don’t think about – even though they are important elements of my character, being gay or being Spanish or being born in the democracy. All of these elements come together in my work.”

In making Volver and returning to that place from his childhood that he had avoided for so long, he surprised himself. The La Mancha that made Almódovar so unhappy as a child now has given him a kind of a gift in an extraordinarily happy shoot that reunited him with his cherished Maura and Cruz and produced another extraordinary movie.

“I didn’t imagine it could be such a strong experience for me,” he explains. “But to go back to La Mancha was to go back to my mother, not like a memory, but like a landscape, like a place. Thinking about my mother like a place where you live, so it was incredibly moving and more than moving.”

“It gave me a kind of inner peace I’ve never experience before during a shoot,” Almódovar reveals. “Shooting is something very crazy and peace is the last feeling that you have when you’re shooting, but being in the same place where she lived and where I lived as a child, it was like a spiritual journey into something that I didn’t expect. That was very healing to me.”

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