It may be due more to the swivelling hips of Ricky Martin and J-Lo than the swivelling pens of Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Isabelle Allende, but one cannot deny that in the last few years all things Latino have been in increasing vogue. Is Anglo-Saxon cultural hegemony under threat then? Maybe not, but it certainly seems that it finally has a potent adversary, particularly in the world of cinema. The young Mexican actor Gael Garcia Bernal has already established an international reputation despite not having made a single film in English. Three of his films, Amores Perros, Y Tu Mama Tambien and Los Diarios de Motocicleta have been among the most acclaimed foreign language films of recent years; the Columbian actress Catalina Sandino Moreno was nominated for a Best Actress Oscar for her subtle performance in her debut Maria Llena Eres de Gracia, a potent film about drug mules told with an absolute refusal to pander to sentimental proselytising; and, most significantly of all, at least in terms of the exposure guaranteed, two Spanish filmmakers have won the Best Foreign Film Oscar in the last few years, Pedro Almodóvar and Alejandro Amenábar.
Crashing on to the staid, grey-souled Post-Franco scene, with provocative multi-coloured bursts of exuberant irreverence, Pedro Almodóvar has not only been consecrated at the Oscars but has also been acclaimed as the most influential Spanish filmmaker since Luis Buñuel. With camp, hedonistic and sexually vulgar films, notable for their strong, flamboyant women and their comic, melodramatic treatment of everything from necrophilia to the need to keep your eye on the gazpacho, Almodóvar has risen to the top of the Spanish film industry. But now, it seems, the King has lost his crown.
In the nine years since Alejandro Amenábar, then a 23-year old tyro, released his debut film Tesis, Almodóvar’s cinematic supremacy has been increasingly challenged. A thriller about snuff films and an unexplained murder, Tesis is remarkable for the quality of its production. Given Amenábar’s tender years when directing it you might expect a more obviously first-time feel. But Amenábar, who not only wrote the screenplay but also the score, fashions a dark, moody piece of work, which, from its opening moments on the underground, is suffused with a sense of menace.
Since his immediate success, Amenábar’s star has done nothing but rise. His second picture, the psychological thriller Abre Los Ojos, was an even bigger hit in Spain than his first. A Picture of Dorian Gray like story of vanity, self-obsession and the thin fading line between dream and reality, Abre Los Ojos came to the attention of Tom Cruise. Cruise went on to star in a remake of the film, Vanilla Sky, in which Penelope Cruz reprised her role from the original. Cruise then produced Amenábar’s first English language film, The Others, the surprise hit of summer 2001. An old-fashioned film full of bump in the night chills set in a fog-shrouded mansion The Others is notable for the way Amenábar takes the clichés of the haunted house genre and transforms them into a quietly brooding film. The magnificent I-didn’t-see-that-coming twist, worthy of The Usual Suspects or The Sixth Sense, did much for the film’s popularity.
Amenábar’s fourth film Mar Adentro is a marked departure from the Hitchcockian thrills of his first three pictures. With Mar Adentro, he reveals there is far more in his cinematic armoury than one might have expected. It is subtle, tender and emotive, yet some have dismissed it as an issue movie. This is to do the film a terrible disservice. How many said the same about La Haine, Mathieu Kassovitz’s uncompromising look at life in the edge-of-city Parisian immigrant communities? Whilst ostensibly “about” euthanasia in general and the true story of Galician Ramon Sampedro’s battle with the Spanish authorities in particular, the film is much more than that. It is a study in varieties of love, familial, romantic, filial. And as a result, amid the unrelenting pain of the story, its message is, in essence, an uplifting one. The way in which Sampedro’s family care for him is remarkable to see, especially when relationships in films are too often portrayed as cynical. The dedication of Manuela, Sampedro’s sister-in-law, is particularly heroic, especially given the irascibility of her bed-ridden charge.
And so what of Pedro? Well, he achieved something of a peak with his pair of Oscar winning films, Todo Sobre Mi Madre and Hable Con Ella. Far less reliant on the outrageous bawdiness with which he first made his name, these films represent a far more reflective Almodóvar. They are meditative, introspective and seem to have sprung from an imagination that now sees the need for something other than colourful shocks. Almodóvar’s male characters are increasingly less one-dimensional. From Javier Bardem’s David in Carne Tremula to Dario Grandinetti’s Marco in Hable Con Ella, he has begun to create thoughtful sensitive male characters, a welcome change from the clueless buffoons of his early pictures. Almodóvar’s last film, La Mala Educacion, a dark, semi-autobiographical tale of thwarted innocence and corruption in the Catholic Church, received a rapturous critical reception in the States, but was not so warmly received at home. A sombre examination of the way in which past demons can unsettle the present, it was completely overlooked at the Goyas, the Spanish Oscars, and may have led to Almodóvar’s recent decision to lave the Spanish Academy.
As Almodóvar has been embraced abroad as an auteur he has lost popularity in Spain. Is this a case of over familiarity? What people like about Almodóvar is, paradoxically, what they eventually begin to be irritated by. Many of his characters can be dismissed as caricatures and his satires as heavy-handed; there is a sense in which Almodóvar is making the same film again and again. He is a director at his best when restrained, when he allows his natural flamboyance to be tempered. In Hable Con Ella he achieved this and crafted a near perfect film, a morally ambiguous love story and a paean to the power of devotion.
But this is Amenábar’s time. He is young, has a cabinet full of Goyas and now an Oscar. He is coming to the attention of a worldwide audience and the stakes will be raised. With Mar Adentro Amenábar he has shown himself capable of working in more than one genre, something Almodóvar has never really demonstrated, nor perhaps has he wanted to. Almodóvar’s films, whatever their flaws, are one man’s vision, one man’s view of the world. They are borne of an imagination that is utterly resistant to being fettered. Whether you think they are exaggerated, is beside the point. No, it is the point. Almodóvar dresses reality in gaudy clothes, yes; but this is his mode. He examines social and philosophical issues of place and identity through the use of an almost cartoon aesthetic. And, if you think about it, there is something profoundly apposite about a cross dresser in a Catholic church; it says something about the essentially conflicted nature of Spanish culture in one single simple image. Amenábar, although a fellow writer-director, is more a Spielberg than a Buñuel. He is a craftsman rather than an auteur in the midst of setting out his own personal expression. In contrast to Almodóvar he is a storyteller in the classical sense, he serves the tale, and not the other way around. But whatever the distinction between them, let us hope that they both continue to resist the lurid allure of Hollywood. Or, and this would be far more positive, let us hope that they continue to make people aware that cinema does exist outside the English language, so that one day we may be able to go down the local multiplex and actually have a bit of choice of a Saturday evening.