"Bad Education" (2004)
In between two of his very best, "Talk to Her" and "Volver," Almodóvar made arguably one of his most personal pictures, the meta-noir "Bad Education," which was chosen as the first Spanish film to open Cannes. The film was well-received at the time, but on reflection, in the context of his subsequent work, it feels like a rather minor picture in his ouevre. Not that it's lacking in ambition. If anything, the layered story, of a film producer (Fele Martinez) approached by a man (Gael García Bernal) claiming to be his childhood friend, and first love Ignacio, with a short story that delves into Ignacio's abuse by a priest at their boarding school (a synopsis that barely scratches the surface), has a surfeit of it, the tricksy levels of narrative dulling any potential emotional impact the tale could have, and the film noir plot contrivances don't help. But minor Almodóvar is still more interesting than major films by most directors. The depiction of gay life in immediately-post-Franco Spain is deeply felt, as its investigation of sexual abuse in the Catholic Church, although the director is careful not to paint Father Manolo (an excellent performance by Daniel Giménez Cacho) as a monster. There's something firmly Fassbinderian about the structure, making it as difficult a film as the director has ever made -- as such, it's even more remarkable that it performed so well as it did at the box office, although in the U.S. it had to be edited down from an NC-17 rating from the MPAA to get there. But judged against some of his other masterpieces, it can't help but feel a little hollow by comparison. [C+]
Almodóvar and Penélope Cruz have had one of those incredibly fruitful director-actor relationships that viewers love to see, and more than most it seems to have been pretty symbiotic and mutually beneficial -- the director has benefited from Cruz's higher profile of late, but Cruz has never forgotten that she owes a lot of the cachet to the roles the director has given her. In many ways, the part of Raimunda in "Volver" is the apotheosis of this relationship; never has Cruz been better, with Almodóvar or any other director, than she is here. A story spanning grand themes of sickness and death and forgiveness, yet bursting at the seams with life and sex and food as well, the plot follows Raimunda and her sister Soledad (Lola Duenas) as they return to the small village where they grew up for their aunt’s funeral, and Soledad encounters the ghost of their mother Irene (Carmen Maura, finally reuniting with the director after 18 years) and brings her home to live in Madrid. While Raimunda's life takes a (melo)dramatic after a terrible incident between her lazy, abusive husband and her daughter Paula (Yohana Cobo) Soledad tries to keep their mother’s ghost a secret, but all the various tangled strands begin to unravel. It's a wonderful showcase for Cruz’s acting, and though the storyline itself sometimes becomes convoluted and confusing, (it just has so much to say!) Almodóvar juggles everything like a pro, and in fact turns in one of his most stylistically restrained and mature films. Perhaps because of this, “Volver” turns out to be one of his most accessible films in terms of allowing us to understand and connect with the characters. And as the culmination of the director's career-long fascination with women and female relationships, "Volver" is everything we could hope for, boasting a pulsating heartbeat in every scene, and brought to life by an abundance of terrific actresses all on top form. [A+]
"Broken Embraces" (2009)
Proving that the knot is always much more fun than having the untangled string, this colorful neo-noir unloads various character details and mysterious relationships in its first 15 minutes, jumping back and forth between two time periods to make things even more confusing. Blind screenwriter Harry Caine (formerly filmmaker Mateo Blanco until an accident took his eyesight, both are played by Lluís Homar) is courted by a director to compose a script based on his recently deceased millionaire father Ernesto Martel. He declines, suggesting something heavier than disinterest, and eventually reveals his tortured past. During his Mateo days, the protagonist had a deep romance with actress Lena (the always ravishing Penélope Cruz) whose life ended tragically in the same hit and run that took our hero's sight. As a thriller it's engaging and creative (one subplot involves Martel viewing silent video footage of the couple taken by a spy -- and as he watches it, a lip reader recaps their private dialogues) but once the puzzle completes, the filmmaker opts to ruminate on Harry's lost love. Here Almodóvar misses the mark: this kind of emotional audience commitment can't come so late in the game, and the results are much less interesting and rather empty. We won't go so far to call it maudlin as the seasoned vet is careful not to overdo things, but it does lack the power contained in the first half. [B-]
"The Skin I Live In" (2011)
People are likely to chide "The Skin I Live In" (adapted from the Thierry Jonquet novel "Tarantula") for not having the humanity of Almodóvar's previous few films. And, truthfully, it does lack the tenderness of "Broken Embraces" and luminous warmth of "Volver" (it even falls short of emotional knottiness of "Bad Education"). But honestly – who fucking cares? "The Skin I Live In" is the most electrically alive Almodóvar film in ages, a balls-to-the-walls high camp thriller about a deranged plastic surgeon (Antonio Banderas, for the first time in two decades) who is keeping a very comely captive in the form of Vera (Elena Anaya). Almodóvar, who has never shied away from narrative complexity, folds the narrative back on itself, stretching it apart like warm taffy, letting the multiple mysteries slowly reveal themselves. There are some that will be turned off by the film's truly outré plot twists and somewhat hammy double entendres. It's great to see Banderas back with Almodóvar and if Penélope Cruz is too busy doing "Pirates of the Caribbean" movies from the next few years, we at least know he's got an ace leading lady in magnetic Anaya. [A]
Not To Forget: Eagle-eyed Almodóvar watchers will have spotted that there are a couple of gaps in this list; namely, his second and third pictures, which for a variety of reasons we weren't able to check out before deadline. 1982's "Labyrinth of Passion" isn't, at present, available on Region 1 DVD and as a manic, Billy Wilder-influenced comedy about the affair between a pop star and a gay Middle-Eastern prince, it's not terribly hard to see why. The film wasn't one of his best-received by any means, but we'd certainly like to check it out at some point.
Meanwhile, 1983's "Dark Habits" is like a bonkers "Black Narcissus," following a cabaret singer hiding out with a group of fallen nuns. It was the director's first brush with real controversy -- it was turned down by Cannes, and kept out of the official selection at Venice thanks to apparently blasphemous content, which really only makes us want to see it more...