Pedro Almodóvar: 13 great Spanish films that inspire me

In his own words, the acclaimed director of Talk to Her and Julieta recommends a selection of the best Spanish films.

Pedro Almodóvar
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Pedro Almodóvar filming All about My Mother (1999)

Pedro Almodóvar filming All about My Mother (1999)

Main Street (Calle Mayor, 1956)

Director J.A. Bardem

Main Street (1956)

I have a weakness for films that look at rural life in the provinces; I guess it’s because I managed to escape from that kind of life. Calle Mayor is a melodrama about a spinster from the provinces. In the 50s, female loneliness always meant the absence of a man. The fate of a woman over 30 was the kitchen, the church or obesity. A group of idle friends (they seem to be lifted straight from Fellini’s I vitelloni) decide to play a joke on naive spinster Isabel (the wonderful Betsy Blair), by one of them pretending to court her. The story is told from the female point of view – something unusual at the time. Female sexual desire is repressed or becomes an object of ridicule. Calle Mayor is a major work that has not only stood the test of time but has consolidated its reputation.

It Happened in Broad Daylight (El cebo, 1958)

Director Ladislao Wajda

It Happened In Broad Daylight (1958)

Six years before Goldfinger (1964), the German actor Gert Froebe starred in this strange Spanish-German-Swiss coproduction about a pederast who kills girls in a forest near a small village in a Swiss canton. You could say it’s a version of Little Red Riding Hood. In fact El cebo belongs to the genre of ‘crime thriller with children and a monster’, whose most illustrious forebears are Fritz Lang’s M (1931), Charles Laughton’s The Night of the Hunter (1955), James Whale’s Frankenstein (1931), and even Víctor Erice’s The Spirit of the Beehive (1973). It boasts splendid black-and-white photography and a script written by Friedrich Dürrenmatt, who two years later would write a version in novel form called The Pledge (Sean Penn directed an adaptation of it in 2001 starring Jack Nicholson).

The main characters, aside from Gert Froebe, are played by two big European stars of the time, Michel Simon and Heinz Rühmann. Directed by the Hungarian Ladislao Vajda, who lived in Spain and who had worked as editor for Billy Wilder at the beginning of the 30s, El cebo is one of the few examples of a film in which a diverse mix of nationalities and talents crystallises into something beautiful and personal.

The Executioner (El verdugo, 1963)

Director Luis García Berlanga

The Executioner (1963)

A young gravedigger meets the daughter of an executioner and falls in love with her. Although love has sprung from their shared connection to death, the gravedigger dreams of emigrating to Germany to complete his training as a mechanic, but a bureaucratic mistake forces him to stay in Spain and take on his father-in-law’s role as executioner. Rafael Azcona and Luis García Berlanga’s script is full of humour, and José Isbert (who plays the executioner) comes across as so likeable that the censors failed to understand the true nature of the film; they only found out it was against the death penalty (in Spain death by garrotte was still in force) when it was shown at the Venice Film Festival and won the FIPRESCI prize. From that moment on, the film encountered difficulties getting screened. The Executioner is an absolute masterpiece; seen now, it seems inconceivable that it was filmed in 1963. It’s an astonishing plea against the death penalty, disguised as a delightful and funny comedy of manners.

Aunt Tula (La tía Tula, 1964)

Director Miguel Picazo

Aunt Tula (1964)

Once again a repressed spinster, but in this case it’s about self-repression. Aunt Tula happily immerses herself in all the everyday female rituals – church, family, innocent all-female meetings, all the while turning her back on sexual pleasure. Tula and her environment are manifestations of a deformed, almost psychotic view of chastity and female decency. Despite not containing any nakedness or explicitly erotic scenes, it’s only rarely that sexual desire has been as vividly present in Spanish cinema as it is in Aunt Tula. For someone like me, who would make films about lonely, courageous women, Aunt Tula by Miguel Picazo is still a role model.

Strange Voyage (El extraño viaje, 1964)

Director Fernando Fernán Gómez

Strange Voyage (1964)

Fernando Fernán Gómez was a genuine one-man band: actor, director, novelist, playwright – he shone in all disciplines. I was lucky enough to work with him on All about My Mother, where he played Penélope Cruz’s father. El extraño viaje is an ‘accursed’ masterpiece that was not actually released at the time, although Spanish censors could not really account for their rejection of it. In 1964 Spain was getting ready for modernisation and development. Tourism was envisaged as one of the big hopes for our economy, so the image of a Spanish beach on which the corpses of two fat, ugly, drunken brothers appear didn’t seem the best way of promoting our coasts.

The film tells the true story of the, still unresolved, killing of two brothers in a small coastal town. Unlike other films included in this season which are set in a rural milieu, the work of Fernán Gómez overflows with the blackest humour. It is an example of that peculiar Spanish neorealism, less sentimental than the Italian version that highlights one of our distinguishing features – a grotesque and sometimes surreal black humour.

Peppermint Frappé (1967)

Director Carlos Saura

Peppermint Frappé (1967)

Some films define themselves by means of a simple dedication; Peppermint Frappé’s is to Buñuel and openly embraces the Buñuelian surrealist influence. A drab and insignificant radiologist from the provinces (a superb José Luis López Vázquez) becomes obsessed with his long-time friend’s girlfriend, a modern, fresh and very free girl – the opposite of both him and Spain in the 60s. The film can be read as a cryptic plea against the repression and hypocrisy of the petty bourgeoisie of the time, but it is more than that; the story could have been lifted from a Patricia Highsmith novel, where the protagonist is a sweet psychopath who goes unnoticed in the world he inhabits.

Carlos Saura’s film lives on as a very modern film, a ‘pop’ work in the same way that Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom (1960) is ‘pop.’ Its technical credits are mythical for Spanish cinephiles: Rafael Azcona co-wrote the script with Saura himself and Luis Cuadrado, the father of modern Spanish cinematography, was director of photography. And a young Geraldine Chaplin plays opposite López Vázquez, in what for me is one of her best performances

Poachers (Furtivos, 1975)

Director José L Borau

Poachers (1975)

Poachers is a Goyaesque fresco that takes place on a hill and its surroundings – a microcosm of Spanish society at the precise moment Franco was on his deathbed. A symbolic reading might see the forest as representative of Spanish society, or the mother character, Martina, as a metaphor for our country – fierce, immortal, hypocritical, inbred and a killer.

Poachers mixes two genres that have only rarely been tackled in Spanish cinema: the western and the noir. Director José Luis Borau pays homage to Buñuel by choosing Lola Gaos to play the fierce mother character. This actress with the hoarse voice and craggy physique had worked with Buñuel, the genius from Aragón, in Viridiana (1961) and Tristana (1970); in the latter she played Saturna, the maid of Tristana-Deneuve. As Borau has stated, the name Saturna gave him the key to the character in Poachers, by way of allusion to Goya’s ‘Saturn Devouring His Son.’

Rapture (Arrebato, 1979)

Director Iván Zulueta

Rapture (1979)

Arrebato was filmed only four years after the dictator Franco’s death in 1975 but it’s almost as if he had never existed. The story, deliberately depoliticised, takes place in a cosmopolitan Madrid, at the outset of la movida. The protagonist is a horror film director, mysteriously gobbled up by his Super 8mm camera. It’s a fantastic tale of self-immolation; of dedication to both heroin and cinema as beginning and end of everything, and to the dark side as the only possibility for self-fulfilment and self-knowledge. Arrebato is an ‘accursed’ film that nobody saw back then and which is now an absolute modern classic. Its actors would appear in some of my 80s films.

El sur (1983)

Director Víctor Erice

The South (1983)

Can it be that an unfinished film is one of the best in Spanish cinema history? Yes it can, and that film is El sur. The second work by Víctor Erice tells of a girl growing up into adolescence and her fascination with her father. Relationships between parents and their children are always mysterious. The father is a kind, reserved and hermetic man who hides a secret. The discovery of this mythical father’s past and the tenderness and simplicity of Erice’s mise-en-scène turn the film into an instant classic. Owing to production problems the film, originally scripted at two and a half hours, eventually came in at 96 minutes. 96 minutes of emotions so intense that you’re left breathless. I cry every time I watch it.

Jamón, Jamón (1992)

Director Bigas Luna

Jamón, Jamón (1992)

Bigas Luna’s film was Penélope Cruz’s debut and the reason why so many directors, me included, dreamt about working with her some day. The most important icons of our culture are all pitched together in Jamón, Jamón: bullfighting, food, out of control passion, shameless sensuality, class struggle, the Iberian macho man, ham (also Iberian); and then there’s also the explosive encounter of those two forces of nature, Penélope Cruz and Javier Bardem. Jamón, Jamón is a genuine celebration of all things Spanish. The film is worth watching just to see Penélope Cruz walking in front of Javier Bardem’s motorcycle. And for its humour – fresh, physical and unquenchable.

Thesis (Tésis, 1996)

Director Alejandro Amenábar

Thesis (1996)

Alejandro Amenábar debuted in style with this skilful thriller about the market for violent images, in this case videos of real murders and torture, or snuff movies. Amenábar concocts an inspired teen horror film, anchored by a solid script, that constantly springs surprises throughout its two hours. In order to speak about snuff movies he has the brilliant idea of locating the action in the main college of the School of Communication Sciences in Madrid, where future filmmakers are trained, a space well known to the director because he was still a student there. It turns out to be very practical and economical that everything takes place there; and delightfully ambiguous that teachers and students chase and kill each other, and that the video cameras, which they use for their film practices, carry within them a lethal danger.

Blancanieves (2012)

Director Pablo Berger

Blancanieves is one of the peaks in recent Spanish cinema, but had the bad luck to be released a year after The Artist (2011), a silent film that triumphed the world over. Pablo Berger had in fact decided years earlier to film his personal take on the Brothers Grimm fairytale as a black-and-white silent; the result is heartrendingly beautiful. Blancanieves embraces Freaks (Tod Browning), German Expressionist cinema, Spanish folkloric clichés (including Merimée’s Carmen), even Sleeping Beauty. Berger’s experiment is, in my opinion, the best cinematographic version of the Brothers Grimm tale, risky and brilliant in every sense. And there’s a wonderful cast of Spanish actresses: Maribel Verdú, Ángela Molina, Inma Cuesta and the young Macarena García.

Magical Girl (2014)

Director Carlos Vermut

Magical Girl (2014)

Carlos Vermut is the latest big revelation of Spanish cinema. Not only is his second feature, Magical Girl, a deeply disturbing tale full of mystery, but it also looks like no other Spanish film. Vermut comes from the graphic comic world and is a devotee of Japanese culture. The film tells of the difficulties faced by a jobless father who adores his daughter, a 12-year-old girl with leukaemia whose biggest dream is to own the dress worn by the lead character in the Japanese anime series she fanatically follows, Magical Girl Yukiko. Getting hold of the money to buy her the dress turns her father into a criminal.

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