‘Cinema taught me more than my priest did’

He once worked at Madrid's world-famous Rastro flea market, loves toy cars and launched the career of Hollywood star Antonio Banderas. Meet The Local's latest Spanish Face of the Week, film maker Pedro Almodóvar.

'Cinema taught me more than my priest did'
Pedro Almodóvar's latest film satirizes the economic crisis in Spain. Photo: Kevin Winter/Getty Images North America/AFP

So who is Pedro Almodóvar?

Almodóvar is almost certainly Spain's most famous film director of all time. In a career spanning nearly 40 years, he has directed 20 feature films.

His international breakthrough came with the high farce of Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, and his 2002 film Talk to Her earned him an academy award nod for Best Director.

How did he become involved in cinema?

At the age of eight, the film maker was shipped off by his family to a boarding school in Cáceres in Extremadura, where he soon discovered the local cinema.

"Cinema became my real education, much more than the one I received from the priest," Almodóvar later said.

In the late 1960s, the director moved to Madrid and taught himself film making, funding this project with jobs including a stint at Madrid's famous Rastro flea market and at telecommunications operator Telefónica.

In the wake of Spain's long-serving right-wing dictator in 1975, Almodóvar became an integral part of Madrid's Movida movement, a countercultural phenomenon that went a long way towards forging Spain's new socially liberal identity. 

His early short films — shown in Madrid's nightclubs — contained no soundtrack, so he did all the voices for the actors himselves.

His debut film, 1980's Pepi, Luci, Bom and Other Girls Like Mom was a raunchy underground comedy which lent witness to this new, freer, Spain.

Almodóvar has worked with many of Spain's top actors and is credited with launching the film career of Antonio Banderas.

Penélope Cruz, meanwhile, says the Spanish director is the reason she started acting.

"When I was growing up, there was such a fear of change in Spain and he seemed to be the opposite," she told the UK's Guardian newspaper in 2009.

"Even when I was a little girl, I identified with him,"

“It’s very Latin to work and live with a clan,”  Almodóvar told the New York Times in a separate interview.

“Penélope is a great friend, but she also gives me wonderful results. When I have a good experience with someone, I tend to use them again.”

And why is he The Local's Spanish Face of the week?

There a couple of reasons. Firstly, there are the comments Almodóvar made about the Spanish monarchy this week.

"I feel sympathy for the King," said the director.

"He has always been very nice with me so I don't want to cause him any problems.

"But I think we should have the possibility of a referendum to ask the Spanish people what they think about the system and ask if they want a constitutional monarchy or not."

Almodóvar also said his perceptions of Spain's Royal Family had changed in recent years, especially in the wake of the publication of Pilar Urbano's book by Queen Sofia, La Reina Muy de Cerca (The Queen Up Close).

"That book shocked me," the openly gay director said on Tuesday.

"For me it was awful to find all these homophobic statements about gay marriage," he explained.

And what is the second reason for Almodóvar being Spanish Face of the Week?

The 63-year-old director has just seen the release of his latest movie I'm So Excited (Los amantes pasajeros) in the United States.

The comedy which satirizes Spain's current economic and political situation saw its US premiere during this year's Los Angeles Film Festival.

Set on a flight bound for Mexico City, I'm So Excited — "Excited also means horny in Spanish," Almodóvar told festival audience in the US city — contains the director's usual heady mix of soap opera and sex.

After a string of more serious feature films, Almodóvar says he wanted a change.

"During the '80s, I made a lot of comedies, so this was like returning to my roots," the Chicago Tribune quoted Almodóvar as saying . "I think I just needed to make something lighter."

But the film also has its serious side.

US film site The Playlist said the movie was "a metaphor for the ills of society today and how we handle them".

As the film goes on, the viewer learns that the pilots are flying in circles, looking for an airport to execute an emergency landing. In business class, it's all intrigue and gossip, while the economy passengers are all passed out cold.

The film reflects the "political corruption and financial embezzlement", Almodóvar said recently.

"We are living in Spain, I don't know about here, but I think everywhere, is in a catastrophic period. But this movie allowed me to turn this catastrophe into a party.

A party to which you are invited," Almodóvar told audience members at the Los Angeles film festival.

Editor's Note:The Local's Spanish Face of the Week is someone in the news who – for good or ill – has revealed something interesting about the country. Being selected as Spanish Face of the Week is not necessarily an endorsement.

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Banderas wins Cannes ‘best actor’ as Almodovar alter ego

Hollywood actor Antonio Banderas has portrayed Zorro and Pablo Picasso but he is above all the go-to actor of Oscar-winning director Pedro Almodovar, who launched his hugely successful film career in Spain in the early 1980s.

Banderas wins Cannes 'best actor' as Almodovar alter ego
Spanish actor Antonio Banderas holds his Best Actor Prize in Cannes on Sunday. Photo: LOIC VENANCE / AFP
And it was the 58-year-old's nuanced portrayal of Almodovar's alter ego in the director's “Pain & Glory” that won him the best actor award at the Cannes film festival — his first major award.
Sporting Almodovar's spiky hair and colourful clothes, he plays the movie's central character, an ageing Spanish director who is plagued by physical and psychological frailty who revisits childhood memories.
Almodovar, 69, has repeatedly said Banderas gives the “best performance of his life” in the film, which ran in competition for the Palme d'Or top prize. And on accepting his award, Banderas dedicated it Almodovar, who has cast him in eight films and helped make him a global box office draw.
“I respect him, I admire him, I love him, he's my mentor and he's given me so much in my entire life that this award, obviously, has to be dedicated to him,” he said.
After decades in the profession, Banderas said it was “mindblowing” to have won his first major award.
“After 40 years of being a professional actor, I've been nominated for practically everything except the Oscars, and I never got on the stage,” he said, citing four nominations for the Golden Globes and two for an Emmy among a string of others that never ended with an award. 
“So to get up there tonight was not very good news for my cardiologist!” he quipped in a nod to the heart attack he had in 2017 after which he had three operations. 
'There's pain but also glory'
But Almodovar, too, has gone decades without winning the big Cannes.  Over the past 20 years, he has had six films in competition at Cannes but never taken home the Palme d'Or and was conspicuously absent from Saturday night's ceremony, which Banderas said added a note of sadness to his win. 
“I would have loved to have Pedro here, that's the truth, but you know, this is the way this profession goes,” he said, pointing again to the theme at the heart of the film: pain and glory. “There is a lot of sacrifice and there is pain behind being an actor or being an actress, but also there are nights of glory, and this is my night of glory.” 
When Banderas began his acting career he “was a passionate animal who impressed just by his presence”, Almodovar told Spanish film magazine Fotogramas earlier this year.
“But now he has matured (after his health scare) and even though he is full of vitality… I can see in his face the experience of someone who knows that he could be dead”, he said. 
Speaking to Spain's Cadena Ser radio, Banderas said he loved the director because he had made him “reflect on a huge number of things throughout my life”.
Back in 1987, Almodovar got him to play a gay killer in “Law of Desire” at a time when depicting crime in movies “was morally accepted” while two people sharing a same-sex kiss “was spurned as anathema”, he said. 
'A very romantic face'
During the summer of 1980, Banderas said goodbye to his teacher mother and policeman father and boarded a train for Madrid where he wanted to “invent” himself. At the time, he was not quite 20. 
The following year, Banderas, then an actor at the National Theatre in Madrid, was sitting in a cafe when a man approached and said: “You have a very romantic face, you should make movies.”
That man was Almodovar, who went on to give him a small role in his 1982 screwball comedy “Labyrinth of Passion”, which celebrated the hedonistic culture and sexual freedoms that erupted in Madrid following the death of longtime dictator Francisco Franco in 1975.
Banderas describes Almodovar as “a genius” who is extremely demanding. Under his direction, he played a frustrated torero in the 1988 film “Matador”, a mental patient who kidnaps a porn actress in the 1990's “Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!” and a psychopathic doctor in 2011's “The Skin I Live In”.
Despite not speaking English, he moved to the United States in the 1990s. His first big success in English was in Jonathan Demme's 1993 film “Philadelphia” in which he played a lover of Tom Hanks' AIDS-infected lawyer.
He also starred alongside Tom Cruise in the 1994 film “Interview With the Vampire” and Anthony Hopkins in “The Mask of Zorro” four years later. He got a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 2005.
Own theatre
Banderas's love life has been closely followed by the gossip press which said he divorced a Spanish actress in 1996 to start seeing American filmstar Melanie Griffith whom he met on the set of the 1995 romantic comedy “Too Much”.
The couple, who have one daughter, divorced in 2015 after 19 years of marriage. Since then, Banderas has been seeing Dutch-German actress Nicole Kimpel whom he reportedly met at the Cannes film festival.
Last year, he spent hours in makeup every day to play Picasso in the TV series “Genius”. Like Picasso, Banderas grew up in the southern city of Malaga, where he participates each year in one of its annual Easter processions and where he is very involved in the theatre world with hundreds of students. 
Later this year, he will open a theatre there. 
By AFP's Hazel Ward