Lorene Scafaria on ‘Master of Melodrama’ Pedro Almodóvar and His ‘Parallel Mothers’

Lorene Scafaria Parallel Mothers
Scafaria: Courtesy Image

For Variety‘s Writers on Writers, Lorene Scafaria pens a tribute to “Parallel Mothers” (screenplay by Pedro Almodóvar). 

Pedro Almodóvar is in control.

From the opening image of “Parallel Mothers,” Almodóvar calls attention to the artifice of filmmaking. On the set of a photo shoot, the props and lights and craft service and crew are all in view as Penélope Cruz’s Janis gives her subject precise direction. With a click, this behind-the-scenes image becomes the first title card.

Like a magician who tells you he’s gonna steal your watch and somehow still takes you by surprise, the more Almodóvar leans into the artifice, the more real every moment feels. A master of melodrama, his films stand on a knife’s edge between romance and thriller, comedy and horror, camp and high art.

An early scene of two pregnant women having contractions in a shared hospital room could be the stuff of sitcoms, but in Almodóvar’s hands, it’s as if a theater curtain opened on a pair of binoculars. The visceral unease of spying on these relatable characters in extreme situations — life-or-death, kill-or-be-killed — matches the bold colors in the room, the way your brain pieces together a nightmare or childhood memory.

You can recognize a Pedro Almodóvar film on sight, though they are all unique. And you can certainly call out his influences (Hitchcock! Sirk!) but at 72, delivering bravura filmmaking that feels as sharp and fresh as ever, it seems Almodóvar’s greatest influence is Almodóvar himself. And why not?

He has a staggering filmography, a profound history of putting female characters center-stage as they fight against oppressive, abusive, absent men while caring for the children and the dying — stories of desperation, survival, liberation. But unlike the starlets of the 30s and 40s, these women take up space — their clothes and hair and visible makeup, their kitchens as vibrant as their interior lives.

Every frame is in Almodóvar’s control; the total design of sound and color, the elegant, precise camera moves, the artifice and authenticity working together.

There’s comfort in knowing his hands are firmly on the wheel. But instead of being rocked to sleep, you find yourself on the edge of the passenger seat, winding through the twists and turns.

His writing, somehow both plot-driven and character-driven, dense and economical, makes each film a twelve-course meal that’s over too soon. When I finished “Parallel Mothers,” I started it over again. Though his tales tend to end with a period, or exclamation point, the themes continue on a loop. They’re novels you revisit, paintings you stare at until the museum closes. His work is a continuing conversation, the evolution of a filmmaker consistently ahead of his time, growing with his films, reckoning with the past, including his own points-of-view.

His actors, frequent collaborators, showcase the full spectrum of human emotion, delivering virtuoso (virtuosa?) performances that feel squeezed out like tubes of paint. The script is his refined recipe and the ingredients need to be in exact measurements.

So how does he make films that feel so alive? Perhaps because he began in the late 70s when Spain entered a cultural renaissance after liberating from a dictatorship. Almodóvar’s process is unshackled, often with enough freedom to shoot in script order. Maybe that’s why his films feel so cathartic and anthemic; Almodóvar is in control and, therefore, free. Like his characters, every choice is a liberation.

Scafaria is the writer and director behind STX’s crime drama “Hustlers” starring Jennifer Lopez and Constance Wu.