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'Viva Pedro' celebrates the films of Almodovar

Starting today, Sony Pictures Classics is spending the month of September rolling out eight of Pedro Almodovar's films in anticipation of the November release of ``Volver," his 16th movie. ``Viva Pedro" kicks off with 1988's ``Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown," probably his best-known film in America, and ends three weeks later with 1986's ``Matador."

The series is a chance for those unfamiliar with his work to see why he's intensely adored and for the skeptical to consider changing their minds.

That skepticism arises, in part, from Almodovar's migration from the margins of Spanish cinema (he was admonished for being an amateurish troublemaker) to the center of European moviemaking. He is the Fellini of our day, a reality that's irksome to those who preferred Almodovar when he was an avant-garde insurgent in the early '80s . Back then he was making movies as part of la movida madrileña, the group of young, post-Franco artists whose work rebuked the stifling climes that lingered after the end of Franco's regime.

``Viva Pedro" omits those campier, politically aggressive, and more punk films -- 1980's ``Pepi, Luci, Bom, and Other Girls on the Heap" and 1982's ``Labyrinth of Passions," -- and the more downbeat two that followed (1983's strangely funny ``Dark Habits," with its lesbian junkie mother superior, and 1984's satirical melodrama, ``What Have I Done to Deserve This?").

The four-week series is focused, instead, on the more -- for lack of a better word -- polished movies. It's presented, basically, as a pair of triple features: three melodramas (1995's ``The Flower of My Secret," 1999's ``All About My Mother," and 2002's ``Talk to Her" ) and three thrillers (1987's ``Law of Desire, 1997's ``Live Flesh," and 200 4's ``Bad Education"). ``Women on the Verge" and ``Matador" are being shown, somewhat arbitrarily, on their own.

The genres are merely guides, of course, since Almodovar is capable of doing comedy, melodrama, thriller, camp, porn, soap opera, and farce in the same picture, sometimes within a few scenes.

``Matador" is the first of his masterpieces. It's an intricately plotted romance comedy done up as a slasher film. Two narcissistic serial killers -- a retired bullfighter (Nacho Martinez) and a lawyer (Assumpta Serna) -- fall in love. That's the gist. The ex-bullfighter has a student, played by a young Antonio Banderas, who was at his best with Almodovar. The pupil tries to emulate his teacher's transgressions. But he flops as a rapist, turning himself in to the police, while claiming to be the murderer anyway.

Working in the wake of Franco, Almodovar had no use for repression and subtext. So all the psychosexual elements bubbling under the surface in, say, Hitchcock, are explicitly in the open. Almodovar's characters don't need shrinks. His plots are therapy enough. These movies also represent a loud, clear break from Spain's solemn and censored cinematic past. The crafty Franco-era allegories of Carlos Saura , for instance, wouldn't do for Almodovar.

``Matador" is remarkable for how directly dangerous it is. This is the only one of his movies about obsession where the obsessed are actual societal threats whose lust isn't aimed at anyone special. If the slashers hadn't found each other, they would have kept killing.

The movie is a great cap to ``Viva Pedro." I'm a fan of chronology, but Sony's choice to package by tone does make it easy to appreciate how intensely Almodovar's movies communicate with each other. This couldn't be clearer than in ``Bad Education," which is ``Law of Desire" retold as a more complex film noir about the psychological fallout of an abusive Catholic Church during the Franco regime.

The bond in ``Desire," between the filmmaker (Eusebio Poncela) , his insane boyfriend (Antonio Banderas), and the filmmaker's transsexual sister (Carmen Maura), is reconfigured, in ``Bad Education," as a revenge plot full of doubling and repetition. Typewriters figure prominently in both, too. ``Desire" might be the more visceral, erotic, and ambitious movie. But ``Bad Education" is the formal tour de force. Its story is the narrative equivalent of a Russian nesting doll. Either way, they're both brilliant.

The discovery in this series, at least for me, is ``Live Flesh," a visually juicy noir yarn about a paraplegic cop (Javier Bardem), his ex-junkie wife (Francesca Neri), and the handsome ex-con (Liberto Rabal) who's obsessed with her. The movie is thrillingly edited by Almodovar's longtime collaborator José Salcedo and shot by Affonso Beato. I missed it the first time around, as it never came to the town I was living in. But it's some of his toughest, sexiest filmmaking.

Along with ``The Flower of My Secret," a sweet women's picture with a classic performance from Marisa Paredes, ``Live Flesh" ended the long high-madcap period that began with ``Women on the Verge." But these screwball soap-operas -- 1989's ``Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!," 1991's ``High Heels," and 1993's ``Kika" were the others -- made Almodovar's commercial reputation, at least in America. When people heard ``Almodovar," they were forced to think ``kooky."

``Women on the Verge" is the most creatively successful of these pictures, and its popularity, especially here, is completely understandable. The film is about an actress (Maura) and her useless attempts to get in touch with her married lover (Fernando Guillén) before he goes on a trip. In one of her many outstanding performances for Almodovar, Maura plays ringmaster to the neurotic circus that includes, but isn't limited to, her lover's wife, his son, the son's fiancée, and the police (there's a terrorist plot).

The film looks and feels alive in a way that the six movies that preceded it don't. And the acting matches the production design: they're both blindingly vibrant. This is the first live-action cartoon nominated for a foreign film Oscar.

What you miss in those movies is the danger that defined ``Matador" and ``Law of Desire." With the screwballs, Almodovar was still playing, but the movies no longer left a bruise. ``Flower of My Secret" and ``Live Flesh" significantly mark Almodovar's rededication to storytelling. Those two and the three that followed (``All About My Mother," ``Talk to Her," and ``Bad Education") are rhapsodically cinematic -- commercial moviemaking at its apex.

``Talk to Her" means little in description (two men develop a friendship while tending to two comatose women) because it operates almost entirely visually. The rhythms of the narrative, as the story moves back and forth in time, with flashbacks unfolding inside daydreams, are perfect. It's absolutely beautiful moviemaking meant to leave us besotted. And because anybody can have that response, some devotees tend to feel like Almodovar no longer belongs to them.

The other night a friend told me she likes Almodovar but felt funny about it because ``everybody likes him." All you can do to console someone who feels this way is tell her to save her guilt for a guilty director. Almodovar is pleasure without the guilt. But my pal's worry gets at the heart of what's so uniquely important about his filmmaking, what he's been working for more than 25 years to achieve: emotional virtuosity.

At the start of his career and into that stretch of farces, Almodovar hadn't the capacity for pure feeling that his movies do now. Their resonance is partly the result of heightening his technique. It's also the benefit of the wisdom that maturity sometimes affords.

It's no wonder Hollywood is after him, and it's no wonder he's resisted. Almodovar is a student of the movies, and he knows how that town will try to chew him up. Plus, he already makes Hollywood movies -- his way. Almodovar is that rare European auteur whose movies aren't necessarily an acquired taste, as are the work of Europe's other great current director, Michael Haneke. Almodovar wants to belong to the world (look at how crushed he was last spring at Cannes when ``Volver" failed to win the Palme d'Or). As a result, his films are anything but foreign: We've all lusted; we've all hurt. And Almodovar isn't scared to dramatize that -- to entertain us, to thrill us, to turn us on. Viva Pedro, indeed.

Wesley Morris can be reached at wmorris@globe.com.

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