Cannes, France — PEDRO ALMODOVAR walks into a bar looking exhausted, and no wonder. "I have been here an entire week, working every day," he says, managing a smile, "and a week in Cannes can destroy even Superman."
It's a sultry evening in May, and the accomplished Spanish director, a two-time Oscar winner, is at the Cannes International Film Festival with "Volver," his 16th feature. Though he doesn't know it, in a few days his film is going to win a pair of the festival's top awards: best screenplay for the man himself and an unusual ensemble best actress award for the six women, led by Penelope Cruz and Carmen Maura, who star in it.
"Volver" has been greeted with nothing but success wherever it has played. In Spain it is neck and neck with "All About My Mother" as the director's highest-grossing film, and in Germany it won a coveted box office award called the Bogey. In the United States, Almodovar's longtime distributor Sony Pictures Classics thinks so highly of the film that it is sponsoring a "Viva Pedro" series starting Friday, rereleasing newly struck prints of eight of his films as a run-up to "Volver's" Nov. 3 release. All of which makes the director very, very nervous.
"It is a gorgeous surprise, I'm not accustomed to that unanimity," Almodovar says, his eyes twinkling through his exhaustion. "So I'm trying to prepare myself for the reverse for the next movie. I don't want get used to this comfort."
The reasons for "Volver's" success are numerous, including the best work of Cruz's career as a Spanish Mother Courage who has to hold her family together, but the key factor is its unexpected emotional accessibility. In fact, the film's ability to intertwine Almodovar's wacky wickedness with deeply felt warmth caused the director to insist that "the most difficult thing about 'Volver' has been writing its synopsis."
He is the first to admit that "when you tell people the plot," which has at least one murder and the breaking of several sexual taboos, "it sounds like Grand Guignol. But I wanted to do it exactly the opposite: very simply, in the most direct, transparent way. Awful things happen, but the movie remains very warm, a comedy. The soul, the spirit of the movie is something you can't easily tell in a few words."
Even more paradoxically, "Volver" remains humane even though it is, in the director's words, "a picture about death, a movie about how people in my town [in the La Mancha region] accept death. They can live with it in a natural way, as part of life, as a new and different presence, not a disappearance. I myself don't feel that way; I have a much more tragic sense of death. But I admire that, and I wanted to make a film about their culture of death, the way they express their vitality through it."
Because the shooting of "Volver," which translates as "to return," took the director "back to the place where I was born and grew up, a place full of memories," the experience created "a very pleasant feeling but also a very deep and profound one." And because "Volver" was so tied to his core emotions, it provided an opportunity to talk to Almodovar about his upbringing, his initial interest in film, his way of working with actors and his directing philosophy.
Women 'making decisions'
"VOLVER" is set in a world of women because, the director says, "up to the age of 10, I was surrounded by women all the time. I was brought up by women. I almost never saw the men. We didn't have access to the male world; they were working in the fields or talking by themselves. The region was very macho, but women governed in the house. The men were the kings, but the women were presidents and ministers. The women were in the shadows, in the shadows making decisions."
Not only were these women "always active, always doing something," they were also "talking, telling stories, thinking the small children were not paying attention. Sometimes I think those stories were the reason why fiction grew inside me."
Also a big influence on Almodovar were movies, all kinds of movies. In fact, he claims that "my dream is to be able to shoot a western, but I need someone to write a script for me." The first movies he saw as a child were "Mexican genre films, science fiction and vampire movies, very kitsch. I learned what kitsch was very early." When he was an adolescent, Almodovar discovered the Italian neo-realists. "They were the best movies in the world at the time," he says, noting that "Volver" is in part "a tribute to the Italian movies of the 1950s, crowded with wonderful women's parts." The director especially admires Luchino Visconti's "Bellissima," starring Anna Magnani as "the best symbol of glorious motherhood," a clip of which found its way into "Volver."
Hand the man a handkerchief