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Best Living Directors: Pedro Almodovar

Best Living Directors: Pedro Almodovar

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We at Spectrum Culture strive to bring you only the best. Ten auteurs at the forefront of the world stage: these are the Best Living Directors.

Pedro Almodóvar is too daring a director to consistently crank out unassailably great movies. He is continually pushing at his own boundaries, setting up expectations only to subvert them as quickly and ruthlessly as possible. At their core, his films tend to be about questioning the very authenticity of storytelling. He playfully counters factual rigidity with emotional veracity, freely and openly wondering if one can truly trump the other. And he does this all with an unrivaled vividness. His films are colorful, lively and populated by uniquely frenetic bursts of deep feeling that are as clear a directorial signature as if he had pressed his thumbprint into each individual frame of celluloid. There are some films – such as his international breakthrough, Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown (1988) – where the narrative itself seems ready to flop forward gasping for air when the finish line of the closing credits is crossed.

Almodóvar is especially skilled at imbuing the more fanciful aspects of his work with a disarming amount of emotional depth. He has a farceur’s instincts but also an unyielding respect for his characters that prevents him from allowing them to become mere cogs in the story’s machinery. There’s a strong sense that these are real people’s bustling lives on display, rather than just mere existences, conjured up to fit some pre-arranged narrative design. This isn’t because Almodóvar piles on the backstory – he’s just as likely to leave details of personal history deliberately, tantalizing cryptic – but because of all the resonant empathy he brings to his writing and directing. As great as Almodóvar is at moving and shifting his camera, he also knows that some of the most affecting, dramatic moments in a film can occur within the simple intimacy of two people talking, and he’s not averse to slowing things down to take full advantage of those exchanges.

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That abiding depth of character has been a gift to the performers Almodóvar has worked with over the years, especially the actresses. He doesn’t reserve his riches for his main muse of the moment; there’s an egalitarian streak to his distribution of quirk and personality. Penélope Cruz may play the lead in Volver (2006), but Almodóvar provides equally intricate motivations for her entire extended family of females shrewdly reclaiming their sense of purpose and identity from men. It is said that the best actors treat supporting roles as if they were leads, because every character is the lead of their own story. Almodóvar actually equips his actors with the ability to do so through his writing, elevating the complexity of his works in the process.

He has a restless imagination that tends to turn his films in on themselves, as if he’s testing the pliability of his plots. Bad Education (2004) addresses this directly by focusing in on the struggle endured by a film director who adapts a short story presented to him by an aspiring actor who shows up at his door. The short story is a fictionalized account of events from years earlier and soon the layers of revision obscure the history, a situation compounded by additional revelations that rattle to the forefront. Or perhaps the caressing of fact has actually added to the story’s authenticity, a possibility that Almodóvar presents as somehow both a vindication and condemnation of the art he himself practices. He’s questioning nothing less that the trustworthiness of cinema itself, simultaneously exploiting and deconstructing its possibilities as assuredly as the French New Wave masters from a generation earlier.

That same brand of cheeky metafiction shows up in other Almodóvar films – the tumble of homage in All About My Mother (1999), the self-referencing film-within-a-film in Broken Embraces (2009) – but it never seems like the sort of self-indulgent wheel-spinning common to creators who’ve lost the ability to examine anything else but the creative process. Almodóvar acknowledges that movies serve as his means for understanding humanity, and, since millions of people have piled into a darkened theater over the years to bask before the flickering lights he has dreamed up, one would assume that he is not alone in this respect. He lives in his movies as clearly as his characters do, and that personal investment gives his works a lasting sharpness.

Almodóvar has an amazing eye. He knows how to translate the images in his head to the screen, always collaborating with top-flight photographers. The cinematography, art direction and music in his movies always synch up ideally with the grand fullness of his formidable storytelling ability. He has a way of framing a shot that demonstrates thoughtful precision while also allowing for the spirited bustle of energetic people. I’m often struck by the elegance of Almodóvar’s compositions, especially in the way that they never sacrifice clarity in the name of cinematic beauty. He never seems to be showing off, indulging in mere camera trickery. Every frame, every detail shimmers with purpose.

Like most of the directors included in this series, Almodóvar makes films that are distinctively, unmistakably his. Even when they are flawed, his films are undeniably expressions of his whirling, inventive subconscious. If and when he falters, Pedro Almodóvar falters purely as himself, without a hint of compromise or regret.

by Dan Seeger

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