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All about Pedro: the legendary queer director is getting the auteur treatment in a new boxed set of his films. Stephen Rebello takes a look at his life and work.

Pedro Almodovar is a natural-born moviemaker. At least that was my impression when I first saw the writer-director's frenetic, candy-colored, irresistible screwball farce Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown nearly 20 years age.

Now thanks to the release of the eight-film DVD boxed set Viva Pedro The Almodovar Collection (Sony Home Video). we can all relive our first time.

In addition to favorites like Women on the Verge, Talk to Her, and Bad Education. the DVD contains a bonus disc featuring interviews with frequent Almodovar players Carmen Maura, Penelope Cruz, and Javier Camara as well as composer Alberto Iglesias and executive producer Agustin Almodovar, the director's brother.

In watching Viva Pedro it becomes clear that in film "after film Almodovar uses the renegades and the marginalized to create something that's both tragedy and farce. Whether his characters are transvestites, nymphomaniacs, transsexual junkie fathers, or lesbian stage divas with coke-addicted girlfriends, they're all wayward souls pushed to the extreme in the quest for connectivity.

In the two decades between Almodovar's chaotic campy debut. Pepi, Luci, Bom and Other Girls Like Morn, in which the wife of a masochistic cop falls for a guy who urinates on her face. and his acclaimed current opus. Volver. where farts lead the heroine to suspect that her dead mother has risen from the grave. Almodovar has planted his flag as international cinema's bad-boy humanist.

Almodovar was already a superstar in Madrid before be conquered Hollywood. His first big attention-getters, Labyrinth of Passion, Dark Habits (set in a convent of drug-dealing lesbian nuns), and the pan-sexual thriller Law of Desire, focus with documentarian precision on the cultural explosion in Madrid during the decade known as La Movida, a sexually freewheeling, druggy, political uprising that rocked Spain after the death of fascist dictator Francisco Franco in 1975. The films are jazzed up with the city's drag, bisexual. and party-hard subcultures, of course.

With his flair for outre Day-Glo production design, towering hairdos, false eyelashes, and outlandish costumes inspired by drag queens, Almodovar transcended the identity of a regional filmmaker. Once described as a Spanish John Waters, Almodovar has never tried to suppress his inner cha-cha queen though his work has now become so rich, layered, and masterful that Almodovar is more likely to draw comparisons to Hitchcock. Fellini, and Sirk. It was clear that he had a deep understanding of Hollywood glam divas of the '40s and '50s like Bette Davis, Rita Hayworth, Joan Crawford, and Marilyn Monroe. Still, he can merrily hurl cine marie Melotovs at intolerance, bigotry, and macho posturing and could also shoot up his movies with heady doses of Cocteau and Garcia Lorca.

At 57. Almodovar continues to make highly personal, idiosyncratic outlaw movies. His queer, bi, and transgender characters are uncommonly complex, brave, resilient, funny, and surprising. They refuse to be categorized by whom they choose to love and to bed. Time and again he beautifully and movingly redefines the postmodern notion of family.

His early films Matador. from 1986, and Law of Desire, which was released the following year, feature Antonio Banderas, who made his Almodovar debut in 1982 in Labyrinth of Passion. Matador finds the writer-director in stylish Hitchcock-meets-telenovela mode as he spins a disturbing tale of obsession with death. Our protagonists are a retired bullfighter (Banderas) who masturbate while watching gory Italian horror movies and a terminally chic, homicidal lawyer (Assumpta Serna) who can achieve orgasm only by killing her sex partners. Think Basic Instinct with smarts. Comedy doesn't come any blacker or more lurid.

Almodovar then hit an early career peak with the intensely personal Law of Desire. The film is a sexual roundelay centering on a famous gay director-writer (Eusebio Poncela) mad for a young bisexual man but stalked by Banderas, a wealthy, troubled one-night stand who has become obsessed with him. There's plenty of male nudity and sexuality in virtually every scene.

Law of Desire also contains a stupendous performance by Carmen Maura as the director's transsexual brother. She dazzles again as a voice-over actress who loses her grip when her lover jilts her in Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown. A 1988 Oscar nominee for Best Foreign Language Film, Women on the Verge brought Almodovar (and Maura) a new level of international attention. The cast of comically twisted characters, females in emotional hyper-drive, eye-popping costumes and design, and beautifully orchestrated running gags that arise from a batch of barbiturate-laced gazpacho suggest Hollywood sex comedies from the '50s. It's probably the campiest and most accessible of Almodovar's films, making it a great jumping-off point for viewers curious about the writer-director.

In the 1995 film The Flower of My Secret, Almodovar moves from the free-form ragtag style of his earlier work toward melodrama. It stars the incomparably stylish, mercurial Marisa Paredes as a spoiled, not quite likable, married and closeted romance novelist whose handsome soldier husband throws her into turmoil by losing interest in her and preparing to divorce her. This is a transitional movie that sees Almodovar flexing a more formal, less frenetic style of storytelling and technique.

Live Flesh, another experiment in cinematic discipline and genre-bending, revolves around five characters whose lives keep intersecting. A man (Liberto Rabal) is released from jail after doing time for a shooting only to find that the woman he loves married the man he shot (Javier Bardem), a former cop now in a wheelchair.

In retrospect Live Flesh seems a bridge to Almodovar's masterpiece, All About My Mother, released two years later. The movie, which looks and sounds great on DVD, is Almodovar in full command of his emotionally-charged material, aided by stunning performances from Cecilia Roth, Marisa Paredes, and Penelope Cruz as the HIV-infected pregnant nun. The film's harsh depiction of gay cruising and drug addiction plus its non-judgmental stance toward its characters make this movie a benchmark of queer-oriented cinema and one of the best films of its era.

Bad Education is the final and most dramatic film in the boxed set. Revealing its plot twists would be criminal, but sufrice it to say the film explores the power of the past on the present using a pair of grown altar boys, blackmail, and accusations of rape. Set in the fascist Franco era and starring the miraculous Gael Garcia Bernal in three different roles, the film is Almodovar's most visually complex. It walks, talks, and sounds like an homage to Hitchcock's Vertigo.

Some people complain that Almodovar is not the moviemaker he once was, that he has changed and darkened as much as the world around him. If you ask me, Almodovar has ascended the ranks to become one of the greatest filmmakers of our time. Viva Pedro is a perfect way to remember where he's been and to speculate on where he may be headed. Continue to astonish us, Pedro.

Rebello also writes for Playboy, Spin, and Hollywood Life.
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Title Annotation:HOLLYWOOD ISSUE
Author:Rebello, Stephen
Publication:The Advocate (The national gay & lesbian newsmagazine)
Date:Feb 27, 2007
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