On the day after his 70th birthday, Pedro Almodóvar was recovering from jet lag. He had recently traveled from his home in Madrid to New York City, where he’d been summoned to promote his exquisite new movie, “Pain and Glory.” While getting his time zones in order, Almodóvar received two “wonderful gifts” — the best he could imagine upon entering his eighth decade. In the United States, Donald Trump’s potential impeachment became a reality. And in Spain, the high court approved plans to exhume the remains of former dictator Francisco Franco.
Two strikes against fascism, I suggested? “Absolutely,” Almodóvar replied. “Absolutely.”
The most famous Spanish director alive, Almodóvar has been warring against authoritarian rule since the moment he picked up a camera. His films celebrate freedom of expression, humanizing transgressive subjects such as sinful nuns (“Dark Habits”), gay lust (“Law of Desire”), botched suicide (“Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown”), ritual bondage (“Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!”), transgender womanhood (“All About My Mother’), the specter of death (“Talk to Her”), sexual abuse in the Catholic Church (“Bad Education”) and murder (“Volver”). Almodóvar fuses melodrama, farce and melancholy, always avoiding preachiness; his plots often don’t coalesce until their final minutes, by which point they are so layered with meaning that no sermon is necessary. He is arguably the world’s premier iconoclast filmmaker, and inarguably one of its best.
Almodóvar’s work periodically draws from his own life, but “Pain and Glory” is the closest he has come to a memoir in movie form. Over the years, he said, publishing companies have asked him to write an autobiography, but he always refused. “I thought, really, that all my life is in the 21 movies that I did,” Almodóvar said. This is the first time he consciously created a protagonist who doubles as his analog.
That protagonist is portrayed by Antonio Banderas, a frequent collaborator (some might say a muse) whose richest material has come from Almodóvar. Banderas plays Salvador Mallo, a gay film director recalling episodes from his life while weathering a creative slump. Salvador revisits his complicated childhood, his earliest sexual hunger, his first love, his professional feuds, his medical ailment. He is haunted by the passage of time, requiring Banderas to be reserved and pensive, which Almodóvar see as the “opposite” of the roles he typically gives the heartthrob: stalkers, kidnappers, fetishists and the like.
“He knows me better than any other actor,” Almodóvar said, with a translator nearby to handle moments when he slipped from English to his native Spanish. “We are very close friends, and during the whole ’80s, I treated him like my younger brother. We used to hang out every day, so he knew many things that happen in the script. And also, like me and like the character, he’s a person that remembers the explosion of freedom that we experienced when Franco died and then came the democracy [in Spain]. In this movie, it is very important ― well, the contemporary moment of my life now, but also that decade.”
Spain’s submission for this year’s international-feature Oscar, “Pain and Glory” forms a “casual trilogy” with “Bad Education” and “Law of Desire,” Almodóvar’s other two masterworks that revolve around directors. There are scenes, he said, that could be extracted from “Pain and Glory” and placed in the other two. “Education” and “Desire” are Almodóvar at his most erotic, so it’s interesting to see them linked with something that takes a more meditative approach to sexuality.
“In all three films, I’m interested in the moment of creation,” he said. “And in all three films, the directors are dealing precisely with issues around creation. They’re doing this at a moment in their lives when desire is somehow interjected.”
Almodóvar is best known for telling stories about queer sensuality and female mobility. Those sensibilities have kept him away from Hollywood, even though Hollywood has never kept away from him. When he won a screenplay Oscar in 2003, he dedicated the award to “all the people that are raising their voices in favor of peace, respect of human rights [and] democracy.”
Like any shrewd gay boy, Almodóvar grew up worshipping Bette Davis and Joan Crawford, cherishing the genre once christened, somewhat pejoratively, “women’s films.” (He enjoyed the recent FX series “Feud,” which chronicled Davis and Crawford’s rivalry. Today, he said, “you can recuperate their bravura, even their bitchiness, or how courageous they were to portray certain things, but you have to give it a contemporary twist.”) But most American studios won’t grant him the independence he requires. No matter how revered he’s become, Almodóvar fears some executive or producer trying to wrest even an iota of artistic control.
He is also what we might call an actor’s director, notorious for giving performers hyperprecise instructions to get exactly what he wants from them: the right fusion of theatricality and naturalism, luridness and mundanity. From Cecilia Roth in “All About My Mother” and Gael García Bernal in “Bad Education” to Penélope Cruz in “Volver” and Banderas in “Pain and Glory,” he has shown us what a screen star is capable of in a medium that has evolved greatly since he joined it. Through it all, the sovereignty he maintains is essential to who he is.
That helps to explain why an American remake of his first international breakout, 1988’s “Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown,” never materialized. Jane Fonda, who was divorcing her second husband and had perhaps found kinship in the abandoned woman at its center, beat out Sally Field for the rights. Fonda asked Almodóvar to direct the English version.
“She’s a very good comedian, and I went to her place to meet her,” Almodóvar recalled. “I had a better impression than I had before. She showed herself to me to be way more vulnerable than the person I saw in interviews, and more interesting as well. And also more simple. The house was not what you would expect of a big Hollywood star.”
Almodóvar gave his blessing but declined to direct another “Breakdown” himself. Fonda instead worked with Herbert Ross (“Funny Lady,” “Steel Magnolias”), but her priorities eventually changed.
“The problem, I think, was really with the adaptation,” he said. “They went back and forth, they sent me a couple versions of the script. They didn’t seem to quite get it. That went on for about four and five years, and in those four or five years, she then became a woman deeply in love, so I think she lost a little bit of her interest in the project. When she married Ted Turner, she even lost some of her interest for acting.”
In the years since, Almodóvar has been offered “Brokeback Mountain” and “The Paperboy.” He considered casting Meryl Streep in his previous movie, “Julieta,” but changed his mind. Just last year, a producer presented him a script by the acclaimed American novelist Ottessa Moshfegh (“My Year of Rest and Relaxation”), whose writing he adores. Almodóvar liked what he saw — “a very interesting proposition,” he called it — but decided it wasn’t right for him. “Physically, it was a lot of action in boats and in uncomfortable places,” he said.
It’s easy to see why “Brokeback Mountain” or an Ottessa Moshfegh reverie would scream Almodóvar. Or why his pal Madonna, who has expressed admiration for him since he appeared in her seminal 1991 documentary “Truth or Dare,” has constantly tried to woo him. Almodóvar and Madonna are both known for decadent aesthetics, brazen libidos and free-speech dogmas. About 20 years ago, she wanted him to direct her in a biopic about Candy Darling, one of Andy Warhol’s signature muses. Madonna went so far as to give him Darling’s published diaries, knowing Almodóvar had an affinity for the countercultural New York that Warhol inhabited.
“I paid a lot of attention to that moment of the New York underground films,” Almodóvar said. “Also, I loved all those transvestites — Candy Darling and Jackie Curtis, all these people surrounding the films. I was a big admirer of all them. Even though I was very much into that period of New York life, I don’t think [the movie] was for me. Madonna always tries to make something together, and I appreciate it.”
A more surprising enterprise for Almodóvar would have been “Sister Act.” At first glance, the crowd-pleasing blockbuster has little in common with his oeuvre. But in fact, its saga about a rowdy nightclub singer who goes into witness protection at a San Francisco convent had perhaps too much in common. When producer Scott Rudin asked Almodóvar to helm the movie, Almodóvar found it similar to his 1983 satire “Dark Habits,” which also pokes fun at religious strictures. At the time, however, Whoopi Goldberg wasn’t yet involved. Had she been, he might he made a different decision.
“I love Whoopi Goldberg,” Almodóvar said with a grin. “I don’t think she was attached because then I would have thought about it. Actually, Whoopi appeared also during ‘Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown’ as a possibility for the character [played by] Carmen Maura, and I thought it was a very good idea. If they were to tell me that Whoopi was going to do ‘Sister Act’ ― but I think they didn’t know at the time because it was very early. But Whoopi Goldberg is one of the actresses I would like to work with.”
The list also includes Streep, Jessica Lange, Michelle Williams and Cate Blanchett. When asked the same question in 1990, Almodóvar cited Frances McDormand, Holly Hunter and Diane Venora. He is working now on what would be his first English-language endeavor, but he plans to make it outside of the Hollywood system. (Since 1986, he has run a production company with his brother.) An unrelenting cinephile who keeps thousands of DVDs at his Madrid apartment, Almodóvar knows that America produces some of the greatest actors in the world, actors who are often “better than the movies they do.” But he hasn’t let them seduce him, and Almodóvar’s autonomous vision is what has equipped his career. It’s what got him to “Pain and Glory.”
“I was lucky since the beginning to meet people that they were the best reflection of what I wanted to do,” he said. “And at the moment, in Spain, I was not the typical director. I mean, I was someone very weird. So I was very lucky to find, so quickly, people that could understand me, because for them it was something completely new. I always find the right actor.”
“Pain and Glory” opens in limited release Oct. 4.