Pedro Almodóvar and the Dramatic Advantages of Universal Empathy

Pedro Almodóvar’s movies do not have villains. This in itself is not unique, especially in global cinema.

The Skin I Live In

Pedro Almodóvar with Elena Anaya shooting THE SKIN I LIVE IN

But Pedro Almodóvar movies should have villains.  He fills them beyond the brim with kidnapping, rape, attempted rape, and unnatural death, all somehow perpetrated by characters who, even if we don’t outright love them, at least compel our sympathetic interest.

Almodóvar’s films are not “character studies,” which often force us to follow the escapades of dark men and women by giving us nothing to look at but their angst filled faces. Such films usually feature bare narratives built around heroes with shadowy sides (addiction, anger, ADHD) or villains (law violators) with potentially golden hearts as they pursue redemption or a spirally death, all set up for our moral judgment. The judgment is often surprising, or intended to be so. The surprise (or one of many surprises) in Almodovar’s work is that we don’t judge at all. Like the early stages of a relationship, we’re having too much fun falling in love.

Delirious clockwork plots drive Almodovar movies through bizarre human set pieces towards cathartic endings. In the gilded Hollywood classics that inspired him, these endings would feature either a triumph of good over evil or a tragic sacrifice by good in the name of love, but in Almodóvar’s singular world, “Good” and “evil” don’t seem to show up at all. And yet we are not confused, nor unfulfilled. We’ve followed people, not “rounded,” “fleshed out,” “bad,” “good,” “quirky,” “well-drawn,” “heroic,” or “evil” characters, but “people” (even the women!!) who have compelled our attention and our emotional involvement through their insane technicolor journeys, during which we’ve (usually) witnessed their unspeakable deeds and still hoped things worked out ok for them. When the big showdown comes in the final minutes, we scramble, realizing that we have forgotten to pick sides. Almodóvar has neglected our need to be told who deserves to come out on top, who should live and who should die and who should have their sex reassigned, and the effect is thrilling (even in the comedies). We care about everyone, but we know that not everyone can get what they want. It doubles (or quadruples or sextuples) the drama available in the typical good vs evil, man vs nature, man vs demon, man vs woman demon set up seen in 98% of movies, while also amplifying the potential for a surprising outcome, which everyone loves. It seems so basic, but it must be so hard because no one but Almodóvar seems able to pull it off.

Copy this man, filmmakers. He’s doing it right.

Pedro Almodóvar filming the incredible silent film homage in TALK TO HER

Pedro Almodóvar shoots the incredible silent film homage in TALK TO HER

WATCH: Matador (1986), The Law of Desire (1987), Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown (1988), All About My Mother (1999), Talk to Her (2002), The Skin I Live In (2011)

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