Pedro Almodovar's pitch-dark social satire "What Have I Done to Deserve This?" (opening today at Laemmle's Monica 4-Plex and the Grande) begins daringly.
An attractive but worn woman in her 30s (Carmen Maura) watches intently as a group of men work off their aggressions at a Madrid martial arts academy where she is a cleaning lady. She later encounters one of them nude, ready to step into the shower, where he beckons her for some passionate but unsuccessful love-making.
This scene is not prurient, but its bluntness does warn us of the further jolts Almodovar has in store. It's not for nothing that the hefty Almodovar, also a rock musician said to have performed in fishnet stockings, has been described as a cross between Divine and Fassbinder.
Poor Maura, she can't even get satisfaction from this brief encounter. A more beleaguered woman would be hard to imagine. She takes uppers to get through here 18-hour days of drudgery. What her male chauvinist husband (Angel de Andres-Lopez, a burly, Brian Dennehy type) makes as a cabbie isn't enough to support his family, which includes two sons (Juan Martinez, Miguel Angel Herranz) and his mother (Chus Lampreave). In a vast, bleak high-rise housing project they live in a tiny apartment, its cell-like rooms made even more claustrophobic by a riot of patterns on the walls and furniture.
But wait: What Almodovar discovers in such grim circumstances is hilarious, the result of a wild imagination combined with an all-essential sureness of tone. While Andres-Lopez dreams of the days in Germany when he was a chauffeur-lover to a popular singer, the 14-year-old Martinez peddles hard drugs with the idea of making enough money to take his slightly dotty homesick grandmother back to her native village. Meanwhile, his handsome 12-year-old brother seems headed for a career as a male hustler.
"What Have I Done to Deserve This?" is an all-out assault on propriety, a declaration that it is a luxury rarely affordable for the lower classes.
In its way it's a feminist work in that it savages machismo (which Almodovar equates with fascism) and protests Maura's oppression. But Almodovar, who regards the more privileged as corrupt, decadent and exploitive, never, never condescends to his people, for whom he has compassion and, if they're deserving, affection. At the same time he has tremendous fun with their kitsch taste, epitomized by campy spoofs of the soap operas so dear to the grandmother and the cheaply lurid taste of Maura's closest friend and next-door neighbor, a toothy heart-of-gold hooker (Veronica Forque).
Almodovar's matter-of-factness makes his film so funny. Seen-it-all Maura is unfazed by Forque, in dominatrix leather, coming over to ask her if she might have a whip to borrow in the same way she might ask for a cup of sugar. As the film grows more serious, its outrageousness waning, it also begins to lose momentum. (Almodovar is not yet Bunuel, but surely the late master would have been amused.) But not to worry, for it pulls together for a surprisingly touching finish.
Clearly, Almodovar gave his cast extraordinary confidence to play with such a total lack of inhibition. Maura is a remarkable actress who seems unfailingly real and down to earth, which has the effect of making all the bizarre happenings that surround her seem perfectly normal. What is finally most unexpected of "What Have I Done to Deserve This?" (Times-rated Mature for nudity, vulgar language, implied sex, adult themes) is that Almodovar, for all his anarchic urbane wit, is throughout really expressing a longing for the loss of contact with community and with nature.