Helmer believes foreign pix may have a better chance this year

Pedro Almodovar will be attending the AFI Fest for only the second time, although the annual event — which honors him with a tribute this year — has screened nearly all his pictures.

Years ago, he made the journey from Madrid for the American Film Institute’s film festival’s screening of “High Heels.”

At other times, cast members such as Penelope Cruz, who starred in the director’s “All About My Mother” and “Live Flesh,” have come in his stead.

Spain’s two-time Oscar winner rolled into Los Angeles last month after speaking to overflow crowds of more than a thousand at Harvard on Oct. 12. The crush at the university’s minisymposium, organized by the university’s film archive and school of romance languages, was so overwhelming that police had to intervene. Not until Almodovar offered to give back-to-back Q&A sessions did people agree to clear the aisles.

“It was chaotic at first, but I found the quality of the questions intelligent and ultimately more satisfying than the ones I get at press junkets,” he says wryly.

His latest film, “Bad Education,” will debut in New York on Nov. 19 and in Los Angeles on Dec. 10, following its AFI Fest premiere Nov. 7. Sony Pictures Classics, the filmmaker’s longtime distrib, is pushing “Bad Education” for consideration in Oscar categories including director, screenplay, music and actor (Gael Garcia Bernal).

“This year hasn’t been that great for U.S. cinema, so foreign films may have a better chance,” Almodovar muses, observing that at least three other Spanish-language pics — “The Motorcycle Diaries,” “Maria Full of Grace” and “The Sea Inside” — are eligible.

“In the past three years, at least six foreign-language films have received nominations in important categories,” he notes, pointing to a new generation of Latin directing and acting talent.

“We have yet to produce a Fellini or Visconti, however,” he adds, in reference to the masters of Italy’s neorealist period.

Asked whether some Latin filmmakers craft their pics with the U.S. market in mind, the helmer replies: “Yes, I think some do, but I certainly don’t. Otherwise I would have made ‘Bad Education’ less graphic.”

The $5 million pic, a semiautobiographical drama about the impact of youthful molestation on two men, touches on the filmmaker’s experiences in a Catholic school and during Madrid’s post-Franco cultural awakening, dubbed the movida.

“This is a story I had to get out of my system,” he says. “I had been working on the screenplay for over 10 years.”

Last month, “Bad Education” was the centerpiece of the New York Film Festival, where many of Almodovar’s pics have had their North American premieres. “The festival’s Film Society of Lincoln Center has been my home away from home for many years,” he confirms. “As a showcase, the festival has made no compromise with glamour or the industry.”

His next pic likely will be a return to his comedic roots.

“People in Spain, and my brother (and producing partner), Agustin, have been clamoring for a lighter story,” he says.

As always, Almodovar is writing several screenplays at once. He will likely opt to first complete “Volver,” a dark comedy with several women in key roles, not unlike his breakout hit “Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown.” The project is targeting a production start in the spring. The involvement of his regular muses Chus Lampreave and Cruz is possible.

Argentinian thesp Cecilia Roth and Cruz will topline his next drama, “El Hermano” (The Brother), about two (male and female) siblings, one of whom becomes a priest.

For another long-gestating project, “Tarantula” (which he will rename “The Queen of Oblivion”), he originally hoped to reunite with Antonio Banderas and Cruz. “However, the script has been evolving into something I am not sure can include them,” he says.

The director says he has shelved his aspirations to make a musical or a Western in the U.S.

Through their production company, El Deseo, the Almodovar brothers have backed a notable set of pics, including Isabel Coixet’s “My Life Without Me,” Lucrecia Martel’s “La Nina Santa,” Guillermo del Toro’s “The Devil’s Backbone” and Alex de la Iglesia’s “Accion Mutante.”

This fall, shooting begins on their most ambitious production, Coixet’s English-lingo drama “The Secret Life of Words,” with Tim Robbins, Sarah Polley and Julie Christie.

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