No-one can consider themself a fan of Spanish director Pedro Almodóvar without seeing one of his most famous films, ¿Qué he hecho yo para merecer esto! or ‘What have I done to deserve this?’ Released in 1984, Almodóvar’s fourth film was his most successful to date, catapulting him onto the international film scene. It can be considered a classic while displaying all the themes and characteristics that still define Almodóvar’s work today in Volver in 2006 and Abrazos rotos in 2009.
Almodóvar described the film as a homage to Italian neorealism, which depicts the poverty and depression of the working class in post-Second World War Italy. In this case Almodóvar depicts the economic struggles of a dysfunctional family in the outskirts of Madrid after Franco’s dictatorship.
But the film is most characterised by Almodóvar’s famous love of colour and the absurd which gained currency during Spain’s transition to democracy and the cultural movement of the movida madrileña. In the 1980s Almodóvar documented Spain’s newfound freedom of expression, experimentation with recreational drugs and use of popular slang in his surreal films. His work has been compared to that of Andy Warhol and the surrealist Spanish film maker Luis Buñuel, who was a member of the daring Generación ‘27 along with Federico García Lorca.
Through candid scenes of prostitution and homosexuality his films manage to playfully break all the taboos Franco’s regime so carefully established. Carmen Maura, who plays the lead in ¿Qué he hecho yo…! embodies women’s empowerment during the Transition after Catholic morals meant women were housebound and clad in floor-length skirts with a role restricted to child-bearing. Almodóvar’s love for bold female characters has continued to the modern day in the form of Penelope Cruz; her character’s daring in Volver, covering up her husband’s murder, bears much similarity to Gloria’s actions in ¿Qué he hecho yo…!.
In ¿Qué he hecho yo…! Almodóvar presents a typical working-class family in Madrid where Gloria’s unhappiness in her marriage to Antonio is compounded by having to live with her utterly dotty (and wonderfully portrayed) mother-in-law who maintains her sugar addiction despite her diabetes through a constant stash of Magdalena cakes, locked away in her bedroom. Gloria’s two sons present her with further tribulations as Miguel, 12, is openly gay, and at one points moves out to live with his paedophiliac dentist, and Toni, 14, is addicted to cocaine. The movida’s flirtation with drug addiction is further presented through Gloria’s dependence on amphetamines. It seems every member of the family is hooked on something. In the case of Gloria’s irritating and sometimes violent husband it’s German opera.
Almodóvar’s circle of, if not powerful then certainly bold, women is comprised of Gloria, batty granny, Cristal a friendly prostitute and next-door neighbour and Juani whose adorable and over-disciplined daughter has psychic powers. It is this network of women who Gloria turns to after she unwittingly kills Antonio with, can you believe it, a jamón serrano. The only witness to the incident is the family pet, a lizard called Dinero who granny adopts after finding him in the park. (Following Toni’s advice to call the lizard something she likes, granny chooses ‘Dinero’, or money, after ruling out cakes and sugar.) The lizard also comes to a sticky end.
Under all the sex and hilarity, Almodóvar’s film has a serious message of change in Spanish society. Gloria kills Antonio after he warns her “aquí el que manda soy yo y si no te interesa esa sabes donde está la puerta”. (“It’s me who rules here and if you don’t like that you know where the door is”). Cristal is constantly referred to by Antonio as ‘una puta’, or whore, but conducts herself more kindly and morally than any other character. We are also taught something about the importance of family, but for Almodóvar this is clearest when Miguel’s return home stops Gloria from committing suicide; a family of two without a patriarch is just as strong, if not stronger, than Franco’s ideal Spanish family.
With his latest project La piel que habito set for release in March, there’s more in store from Spain’s most famous director. Therefore even more reason to buff up on a few of Almodóvar’s original and best films. ¿Qué he hecho yo…! is a good place to start.
Image 1: hispashare
Image 2: audiovideohd
Image 3: hitchcockeravegeteriano.blogspot