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The man behind the woman behind the man

Arriving in Madrid, I am greeted by a message: Pedro Almodóvar has changed the time of the interview. Actually, he has changed the date of the interview. He’s tired, not feeling too clever. Typical Almodóvar. But it’s hard to stay angry with him. There’s also a sweet sincerity to the message: Pedro doesn’t think he is in a state to give you his best. And that is so important to him.

Almodóvar has been making films for 20-odd years, and giving his best for most of the past decade.

For me, he has become Europe’s greatest working auteur. And it’s been an unlikely progress from director of kitsch, Day-Glo, gratuitously offensive, defiantly anarchic movies (Dark Habits; Law of Desire; Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown) to a filmmaker of depth and humanity. The amazing thing is he’s managed to do it without betraying his roots.

There is a school of thought that Almodóvar reinvented himself after his unsuccessful middle period when films such as High Heels and Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! appeared to be determinedly shallow and formulaic. But actually it has been a gradual evolution: the tacky, low-rent qualities are still there, just employed to greater purpose.

In a way, he’s like Monet with his water lilies, only the subjects he returns to are dead children, loving abusers, grieving mothers and transsexual fathers. It could be said that he plagiarises and remakes his own movies. Sometimes it’s hard to remember where one finishes and another begins.

Almodóvar has also evolved as a public figure. For years, he was regarded as apolitical; almost wilfully apolitical. His films were a celebration of hedonism and fecklessness. But Almodóvar has always argued that this in itself was a political stance — his response to the stark Franco decades of regulation and denial. In recent years, though, he has become more conventionally political.

He has spoken out against illiberal government, poverty and intolerant asylum policies — so outspoken that the outgoing Popular party threatened to sue him recently when he asked if there was any truth in the rumour that it was trying to make political capital out of the Madrid bomb.

Internationally, his reputation has never been higher, as evidenced by the fact that his new film, Bad Education, opened the 2004 Cannes film festival — the first Spanish film to do so. But at home, opinion has become more polarised; for many he is a hero, for some he has become a bête noire, a target of hate.

I visit his office, the production house El Deseo (Desire). The office seems familiar. Eventually I recognise that it is based on the office of Enrique, the fictional filmmaker in Bad Education. Only it’s not, of course; Enrique’s office is based on Almodóvar’s.

There are numerous awards scattered around the office. He keeps his two Oscars (best foreign film for All About My Mother and best original screenplay for Talk to Her) at home. His walls are covered in his movie posters — the temptress legs of High Heels, the tragic cartoon face of Talk to Her, the carnality of Live Flesh, and a poster from a film called La Noche de Madrid by Enrique Goded.

The poster is real, but the film is not: this is the film within the film of Bad Education. Only it’s not a film within a film — after a while we realise that what we’ve been watching is not the story of two Catholic boys who fall in love at school; it is Enrique’s recreation of the story.

Almodóvar’s plots have always been wonderfully baroque and labyrinthine, but at the same time they are rather simple. Ultimately, his films are about love: family love, sexual love, past love, flawed love, one-way love.

Almodóvar is approaching his mid-50s. He is wearing a pink jumper and black pants and his black curls have turned into a thicket of grey spikes. His hands are soft and pudgy, but he looks more trim than in recent years. His skinny sideburns hang on his face like fencing swords. “Ah, sí, they are completely natural,” he says, tracing them with his fingers. He is happy to talk sideburns in English, but for anything more complex he reverts to Spanish, and speaks through the translator.

Many years ago Almodóvar said that he could have made a great Gothic horror film about his school life. Instead, with Bad Education, he has created something much closer to a love story. “I could have made a film about school life at any time, because it is an excellent subject, but depending on whether I made it 15, 10 years ago or now, the genre would have changed. If I’d made the film 20 years ago it would have been in revenge, so it would have been far more Grand Guignol.”

Almodóvar interrupts the translator to speak in English — as if he’s butting in on himself. “Now I’m not so furious about that thing, you know,” he says. “Twenty years ago I would have been far more anti-clerical.” That “thing” is sexual abuse. Almodóvar himself wasn’t abused at school, but he says everybody knew exactly who was and by whom.

As with so many of his movies, Bad Education works against all reason. Somehow Almodóvar manages to blend sentimentality with toughness, B-movie melodrama with naturalistic performances, to produce a convincing whole. There are bits of Fassbinder and Buñuel and Sirk, but in the end, as always, it is completely Almodóvar.

I ask him if he fell in love as intensely at school as Enrique does in Bad Education. He says that the film is not straight autobiography. Yes, this was the period in his life when he discovered the powers of love and fear, the joy of cinema, his own lack of faith, but Enrique is not simply Almodóvar.

“I don’t direct films the same way as him, I don’t get involved with my actors, I don’t get so involved with the films. But, to answer your question, I do remember these incredibly intense feelings for another boy. It could have been love. I don’t know because at that moment you don’t know the name for it.”

One of the abusers at Almodóvar’s school was shamed and transferred. “Although I wasn’t actually abused, I do remember feeling extreme physical fear of the priests. One of the things we had to do was kiss the priest’s hand whenever we met him, and I hated this because I found it revolting. I was also quite rebellious, so I refused to do it, and would run in the opposite direction to avoid coming face to face with a priest.

But there was one priest who would seek me out and he’d stand in front of me, stick his hand out and force me to kiss it. And then after I’d kissed it he’d grab my hands and hold them tightly until I ran away. So even this I do remember as being somewhat abusive. But the notorious abuser, the priest who had to leave, had a harem of about 20 boys.”

Did his experience at school turn him against God? “No, I didn’t turn against God. The thing is, God didn’t grant me the gift of faith … I didn’t even feel faith at school. I did ask myself about the meaning of life, so when I was 10, I expressly gave God one year to manifest himself. He didn’t, so I reached the conclusion that I was agnostic.” He didn’t totally give up on the concept of faith though, he just reinterpreted.

“I decided life is God — sí, the act of living. Something I did believe and didn’t need anybody to explain to me is the passion human beings feel for each other, and for themselves. And to me, I experience passion the same way people could experience faith.

“And, of course, when I mention passion I absolutely have to mention freedom too. But passion is not as harmless as faith. In one sense living passionately means taking risks and not taking the easy options life offers. But if you do take risks you can also burn yourself.”

In his recent films, sex and death, particularly Aids-related death, have become more closely conjoined. While it’s hard to imagine Almodóvar as a moralist, there is an intense awareness of the price of pleasure. But he was always an unlikely hedonist, always aware of the bleaker side.

“I have matured very much throughout my life,” he says, “but I haven’t matured with regards to death. I’m still very scared of it. I still don’t understand it and I still don’t accept it. I should start learning to accept it because it is everywhere.”

A couple of years ago his mother, Francisca Caballero, died. She had been central to his life and his work. Her influence seems to hover over so many of his films, and he even gave her small, memorable roles in some of them (the newsreader in Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, the chat-show host in Kika).

“My mother was an extremely creative woman, despite the fact that she lived the life of a rural housewife. She was extremely intuitive and had great sense of humour, and an extravagant capacity to solve problems. I think this has influenced me in writing female characters.”

He is fascinated by transsexuals. They serve as a metaphor in his movies. A recurrent theme is that people are rarely what they appear to be — they reinvent themselves with lies or delusions or surgery. “Transsexuals are a slap in the face of the idea that God creates people. What they do is change their nature. And if you put a transsexual into a story dramatically as a narrative element, it is very powerful because it changes all the other characters and is a challenge to them all.”

Are you more conservative than your characters? “Yes, I’m less adventurous than they are. If I’d lived like my characters I would have been dead before I’d made 16 films.”

There is a beautiful calendar on his desk, featuring posters of his films in different languages. “Would you like one?” he says.

As I leave, he presents me with the calendar, signed elegantly in gold pen in perfect English. “Dear Simon,” it says, “Things are simpler and at the same time much more complicated. Good luck, Pedro Almodóvar.”

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