Fest Traveler: The AFI Festival

“It’s time to make a classic,” Pedro Almodovar wrote in 1985 while shooting “The Law of Desire.”

To celebrate its 25th year, the AFI Festival — running today through Nov. 10 in Hollywood — has chosen Almodovar as its guest artistic director and the meller maestro has selected the pic to screen Nov. 7, the night dedicated to the Spanish auteur.

The Almodovar-curated four-pic sidebar — Edmund Goulding’s “Nightmare Alley,” Robert Siodmak’s “The Killers,” Jean-Pierre Melville’s “The Red Circle” and Georges Franju’s “Eyes Without a Face” — elucidate Almodovar’s “The Skin I Live In,” which Sony Pictures Classics opened Oct. 16 to strong reviews.

“The Law of Desire,” says Almodovar, is a “fundamental title in my career.” It’s also a landmark in modern cinema.

Telling the unrequited passion of a fresh-faced, tousled-haired Antonio Banderas for a dazzlingly talented film director, “Law” is Almodovar’s first film to forefront desire, “the central theme of all my cinema,” the helmer says. “This film represents my youth in Madrid, the terraces, the summer.”

Many would argue it’s the film where Almodovar found his full directorial voice and pastel palette. “The Law of Desire” is a lush romantic meller-turned-thriller lightened by comedic relief and, according to the writer-director, “a melting pot for many of my themes — transexuality, the non-biological family — I would explore later. My signature style is explicit there, harmonious and resolved.”

To get the film produced, Pedro and brother Agustin Almodovar set up their production shingle, El Deseo.

“We gambled our success on one card,” he recalls. “If it had failed, I would have become a contract director and still be paying bank debts.”

Not to worry. With the success of El Deseo and “Law,” the Almodovars began to build its well-oiled movie machine — contained budgets, a worldwide network of loyal distributors, captive audiences — all of which has survived down to his day. And, since “Law,” barring economic restraints, Almodovar says he has worked “with absolute freedom and absolute independence.”

The brothers first inked U.S. distribution with Michael Barker, Tom Bernard and Marcie Bloom at Cannes in 1988 with “Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown.”

As for his current obsessions, Almodovar says he’s “living right now” in “The Skin I Live In,” which he calls “my first take on the horror genre.”

The director confides that Tyrone Power in “Alley” reminds him of Banderas’ mad scientist in “Skin”: “A face without angles, handsome, attractive, an ardent stare, full of ambition, overweening ambition.”

Almodovar gave Banderas a DVD of “The Red Circle” when “Skin” was in pre-production, to help the actor prepare for the role.

Says Almodovar: ” ‘The actors don’t use their faces,’ Antonio said. ‘That’s exactly what I want you to do,’ I replied.”

Also, the fatalism of “The Killers,” a classic film noir, surfaces in ‘Skin” with the plight of the Banderas’ onscreen family.

The mix of art and genre in “The Skin I Live In” is now the stock in trade of auteurs as they try to reach out to wider auds. But, anticipating much of modern art cinema, Almodovar got there first, not only employing genre but genre-hoping with consummate ease.

Genre-blending, says the helmer, is “organic, vital, almost biological: In a month, a person goes through all imaginable genres, including drama, science-fiction and cop thrillers.”

“Almodovar’s work embodies the cross-pollination of cinematic influences that fuel contemporary world cinema,” says Jacqueline Lyanga, AFI’s fest director.

As for what’s next, Almodovar isn’t slowing down anytime soon and says he has a good idea of the cinematic territory his next two or three films will cover. He won’t give anything away, of course, but allows that there’s no shortage of ideas and clearly no less inspiration than when he first began.

“I live to make films, more than ever,” declares the helmer.

HIGHLIGHTS
Several awards-contending films are screening at the AFI Fest. Here are a few titles:

J. EDGAR
Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio
When: 7 p.m. Nov. 3
Where: Chinese Theater

THE LADY
Starring: Michelle Yeoh
When: 7 p.m. Nov. 4
Where: Chinese Theater

CARNAGE
Starring: Jodie Foster, John C. Reilly, Kate Winslet, Christoph Waltz
When: 7 p.m. Nov. 5
Where: Chinese Theater

MY WEEK WITH MARILYN
Starring: Michelle Williams
When: 6 p.m. Nov. 6
Where: Chinese Theater

THE ARTIST
Starring: Jean Dujardin
When: 7:30 p.m. Nov. 8
Where: Chinese Theater

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