The transgressive Spanish director Pedro Almodóvar made 1999’s Todo sobre mi madre (All About My Mother) during the failing months of his beloved mother’s life. Of all the masterful Spanish actresses Almodóvar was drawn to as muse, his mother, Francisca Caballero, was the most profound. Francisca appeared in front of her son’s camera, with minor roles in Kika, Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown. She was also the inspiration for the powerful, headstrong, loving women Almodóvar crafted on-screen.
In a 1999 eulogy for his mother in the Spanish paper, El Pais, Almodóvar wrote, "Although I am not that kind of generous son in visits and cuddles, my mother is an essential character in my life.” He went on to say, “I learned a lot from my mother, without her or I realizing it. I learned something essential for my work, the difference between fiction and reality, and how reality needs to be completed by fiction to make life easier.”
Of his filmography, All About My Mother is the most fully realized and emotionally complex portrait of a mother on the edge. Argentinian actress Cecilia Roth brings a vulnerability to the role of the film’s central matriarch. Within the first 15 minutes of the movie, the central character, Manuela, loses her son. Heartbroken and alone, she tries to make peace with the secrets of her son’s parentage, including tracking down her ex-husband, who has now transitioned into a woman and prostitute. After relocating to Barcelona, Manuela submerges herself into two worlds — the sex worker underworld of Spain’s lower-class neighborhoods and the addiction-riddled backstages of her beloved theatre, which she left behind after becoming pregnant.
Normalizing the worlds of outcasts is a hallmark of his canon. He puts his characters into environments they have either been afraid of or curious about to watch them bloom into something different in mind, body, and soul. A character is never the same from start to finish of an Almodóvar film. The same is true for the audience. While watching, we become frighteningly more aware of our fragility. Disease, death, loss is omnipresent in his world. His films reflect real life. It feels familiar in ways we wish it weren’t. But by venturing forth into his cinematic cabaret, we come out the other side feeling less alone in our trauma.
The kitchen, for Almodóvar, is where the action happens. It’s where his heroines rectify the trauma of lovers, abusers, and Spanish dictator Francisco Franco, whose oppressive specter haunts the director’s filmography. Almodóvar embraces the warm domesticity of the kitchen while subverting all that can happen there. It is not a place for a woman to subjugate her duties but a place for revolt. Husbands, fathers, and rapists are killed in his kitchens. Urine, blood, and guts spill out and drench the floors with entrails. Crimson red paints this sacred space’s cabinets, walls, and even vegetables. How many times have we seen one of Almodovar’s characters slice a tomato? Remember the barbiturate-laced gazpacho of 1988’s Mujeres al borde de un ataque de nervios (Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown)? “I’m sick of being good,” says the jilted wife, Pepa (Almodóvar regular and Spanish icon, Carmen Maura), right before making the deadly gazpacho for her husband.
In his punkish debut film, Pepe, Luci, Bom, Almodóvar subverted the kitchen and domesticity itself by having his heroines urinate on each other's faces there. This act was not a form of torture but pleasure. Underneath the perverse surface, Almodóvar reveals the desires and relativity within women chained to husbands and houses. It breaks the chains of their regulated gender roles, freeing them to be lovers, provocateurs, and, most importantly, fully realized.
The kitchen is not the only oppressive mechanism Almodóvar looks to deconstruct. The looming, violent shadow the Catholic Church casts over Spain is given the gut-punch by Almodóvarit has long deserved. In 2004’s La mala educación (Bad Education), his films have moved past the LSD popping, cocain snorting, lesbian nuns of 1983’s Entre Tinieblas (Dark Habits). La mala educación tackles the dense, disturbing history of pedophilia within the church. In a 2007 interview with GQ, he reflected on growing up in a Catholic boarding school by saying he “could almost literally see their hands dirtied with sperm” when recalling kissing a priest’s hand.