Lost in Translation

by Jaime Esteve

18 November 2009

The Flower of My Secret 

May 26, 2009: Pedro Almodóvar writes in his blog an entry titled “Black Chronicle of the Cannes Festival”, in which he analyses the chronicles published in one of Spain’s most important newspapers, El País, about the premiere of his last film, Broken Embraces, at this year’s Cannes Film Festival. The tone of the entry, as its title suggests, is not very happy, and it exhaustively details how such journal might have offered to its readers a distorted view of what had happened in the Croisette when his film opened.

In the entry of the blog written by the director of the cultural section of the journal, Borja Hermoso, on May 20, he selected lines from French journals Le Monde, Le Figaro and Libération suggesting that the French press had flat-out disliked Almodóvar’s film, and ironically reminded how Almodóvar had declared, only days before, that the French press had always showed more respect for him and his movies than the press from his own country, Spain. Meanwhile, the truth was that, while a few of the reviews from the most important media were indeed less than flattering, the film had a very positive reception, finishing third in the rankings made by media such as Screen Daily or Le Film Français rankings which are based on the ratings given by different critics to the films in the competition.

The angry controversy went on for days and got a certain, somewhat important echo in the Spanish media. On June 24 Borja Hermoso announced that he closed his blog, at least for some time, and that nobody forced him to do so, maliciously adding “not even Almodóvar”.

This is perhaps the culmination (but perhaps just one example more) of something that has been a usual topic in discussions about the film scene and industry in Spain: the place Pedro Almodóvar and his films occupy in such scene, how he is seen in his own country as opposed to how he is seen in the European film scene and, finally, the overwhelmingly positive reception his later filmography has had in the United States, where all his films since All About My Mother (1999) have consistently received different accolades, including two Oscars (Best Foreign Language Film for the aforementioned All About My Mother and Best Original Screenplay for 2002’s Talk to Her) and the first Academy Award nomination ever for an leading actress performing in Spanish, Penélope Cruz for Volver (2006).

The exchange of accusations and data described here in the first paragraphs shows an essential dissension here: Almodóvar’s latest film was considered among the Cannes festival’s very best offerings of the year by the international media while at least a portion (but a very influential and important one) of the Spanish press seemed to be not only passively disliking it but even actively trying to present it as an undoubted failure in the international scene.

It’s definitely not unusual that an artist is not a prophet in his own land, and that he or she is “discovered” as a great one first by critics of other countries, but it is certainly interesting how big the dissension is in this case.

If one goes to the roots of Pedro Almodóvar’s filmography, one can see that this radical behaviour from certain critics suits well to the radicalism the auteur has exhibited from the beginning of his filmography: his feature debut, Pepi, Luci, Bom (1980) includes casual and happy abuse of drugs, open and brutal sadomasochism -with wives happily beaten or cheated on by their husbands- urination on a woman’s face and, in general, a collection of characters displaying a behaviour (especially a sexual one) that could easily cause scandal even among people who would consider themselves moderate liberals. And one has to have on account that all this was exhibited on screens in Spain only five years after the demise of conservative dictator Francisco Franco and only two years after Spain’s democratic constitution was approved.

Soon in his career, Pedro Almodóvar’s films were received outside of Spain as a clear evidence that Spain had changed and that the conservatism and censorship associated with the country during the Franco years were definitely finished. In a way, perhaps, there was even certain identification between Almodóvar’s films and the country, Spain, itself, with Pedro becoming a sort of a trademark for the country’s new image abroad. While his films, that early, weren’t still sealed with an approval stamp by mainstream award bodies, and even if they still were part of an underground culture or even counter-culture, it was usual that non-Spanish reviews of his work underlined how those movies were a symbol of the change in Spain.

Obviously, things weren’t the same inside Almodóvar’s own land. His films were radically provocative and hence, part of the people to whom the provocations were addressed (people who were not exactly like the international, supposedly open-mined critics who saw his films in the film festivals circuit) reacted accordingly, and there were people voicing their discontent and even repulsion for what Almodóvar showed on screen. It is important to note that his films weren’t still the cultural reference and almost milestone they are now and that they weren’t as popular and widely seen as his post-1988 fare has been, so the people giving both the praise and the attacks were still few, despite moderate homeland box office success.

However, in the second half of the ‘80s, the slow but persistent notices his films got from the press started permeating into more strata of Spanish society, Almodóvar was polishing his style, his actors were becoming more popular and this underground culture of Madrid (which we could loosely identify with what has been called “la movida”) was given much more publicity by the media, and it all exploded in the unexpected and overwhelming success of Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown (1988), which became one of the biggest money-makers yet for a Spanish film within its own country, and whose success inside was approved abroad too with a nomination for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar.

That was the moment when Almodóvar definitely broke into the mainstream and became something every Spaniard had to take position about, and also when he officially became Spain’s biggest artistic icon abroad since Picasso or, in film, Luis Buñuel (the merits of other directors like Saura or Erice in the ‘70s weren’t really ratified by a popular success as huge as the one Almodóvar got, or by such a wide and unanimous acceptation by the international media).

Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown was nominated for 16 awards of the Spanish Academy (the “Goyas”) and won some of the biggest including Best Picture, Actress, and Screenplay, but surprisingly lost best director to Remando al viento (Gonzalo Suárez, 1988), thus starting the supposed long, and still unfinished series of problems between the director and the Spanish Academy of Cinema (despite the fact that both All About My Mother and Volver won the top honors including Best Director for Almodóvar). “Disputes” have included, for instance, an almost total shut-out to films that won many important accolades outside of Spain. High Heels, which won the French César for Best Foreign Film and a scored a Golden Globe nomination in the same category; Bad Education, which received, among other honors, the opening slot in that year’s Cannes Film Festival, and the Best Foreign Film award from the New York Film Critics Circle; or the selection of Mondays in the Sun (Fernando León de Aranoa, 2002) over Talk to Her as the movie to compete in the name of Spain for the Oscar for Best Film in a Foreign Language, when the latter was hailed as a landmark in the director’s career and finally landed the Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay and a nomination for Pedro Almodóvar himself as Best Director (while Mondays in the Sun wasn’t even selected as a nominee by the Academy).

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