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Almodóvar returns to the female universe with Penélope Cruz

NEW YORK — Pedro Almodóvar exposed all his vulnerability in the semi-autobiographical film “Pain and Glory.

NEW YORK — Pedro Almodóvar exposed all his vulnerability in the semi-autobiographical film “Pain and Glory.” Now he returns his focus to women not only with the short film “The Human Voice”, an Oscar hopeful that arrives this week in the United States, but with an upcoming movie that reunites him with his muse Penélope Cruz.

“Madres paralelas” (“Parallel Mothers”) will begin production on March 21 in Madrid “if the virus does not interfere,” said the Spanish director, who took advantage of the confinement and wrote the script after his plans to shoot for the first time in the U.S. were thwarted by the pandemic last year.

“I return to the female universe and to motherhood as well, which is a subject that has always fascinated me. But in this case, the mothers that appear are very different from the ones Penélope has played before,” Almodóvar said in Spanish during a recent interview with The Associated Press via Zoom from Madrid.

“These are very imperfect mothers and as an author that’s what interested me the most, especially because I have already done several self-sacrificing and heroic mothers,” he said. “So this is a little bit about descendants, children, but also about ancestors, about family.”

That’s not all he has in mind.

Having shot his first English production with Tilda Swinton — an adaptation of Jean Cocteau’s play “The Human Voice” — he plans another English-language short in a genre he hasn’t explored yet: the Western.

The thing is that making short films “has been very refreshing for me, like recovering new airs,” said Almodóvar.

“I have recovered a bit of that playful feeling that filming was for me in the first years, because I have allowed myself more freedom than I have been able to afford lately.”

“The Human Voice” opens Friday in northern California, Miami and Chicago before expanding to other markets.

Almodóvar, 71, who had COVID-19 just before the quarantine began in Spain a year ago, spoke with the AP about the confinement of his protagonist in “The Human Voice,” the technical freedoms that he took in this film, as well as the role of streaming during the pandemic and his desire to work with “The Queen’s Gambit's” star Anya Taylor-Joy.

Answers have been edited for brevity and clarity.

AP: You've been flirting with the idea of adapting “The Human Voice” for many years. Did the fact that the story unfolds in confinement had anything to do with the decision to make it now?

ALMODÓVAR: The truth is that I had it in mind before the confinement started, but the film is, besides the story of a woman desperate because of her lover’s abandonment — that is confinement, the fact of not seeing the light at the end of the tunnel when someone is as madly in love as Tilda Swinton in the movie. It becomes a metaphor for this time, because she is confined first in the set that we have created as her house, but then that set is part of another closed space where she moves like a ghost, which is the studio where we filmed.

AP: The camera leaves the walls of the apartment more than once to show the set and the equipment to represent the outdoors. It seems a nod to the theatre and an emphasis to the confinement in which we find ourselves.

ALMODÓVAR: As an experiment, I really wanted to get out of the set and show the matter of the cinematographic artifice — the wood, the construction, the empty walls. But it was also not only a visual whim but for example, the fact that a woman is on a terrace looking at the skyline and we verify that there is no skyline but what there is a wall gives the impression that her loneliness is greater, that she lives in the dark almost like a ghost. The fact of also having the (telephone) conversation in motion with the earphones and not seeing who she is addressing gives the character a much greater feeling of loneliness. I tried to unite something purely theatrical, which is the monologue, with something essentially cinematographic, which is the place where it is shot. It is not filmed theatre, but it is theatre within cinema.

AP: Swinton delivers a magnetic performance. What was it like working with her?

ALMODÓVAR: I was a little scared to work in English, but on the other hand it was also one of the reasons for making this short, the fact that it’s 30 minutes was kind of an exercise to see if I was able to direct in English. But the truth is that Tilda’s intervention has been key because from the first rehearsals there was an incredible chemistry between the two. We understood each other from the first moment and I didn’t feel that I was speaking in a different language. Ultimately, the language we both spoke was the language of the cinema.

AP: Your last short film was 2009's “The Cannibalistic Councillor.” How did it feel going back to this format?

ALMODÓVAR: You know, when I finished “Pain and Glory” ... what I wanted to do and what I dreamed of was making this short film. It’s not that I had lost my freedom while making “Pain and Glory,” not at all. But the one hour and a half or two hours footage force you to do some things that you shouldn’t have to take into account. I mean, being 30 minutes, I allowed myself more freedom than in a feature film for a mere narrative fact.

AP: Like getting off the set...

ALMODÓVAR: Of course. I wouldn’t have been able to get off the set in a feature film, because it wouldn’t make the sense it makes here.

AP: You’ve always been an advocate for the big screen experience. Has the pandemic changed your perception of streaming?

ALMODÓVAR: No, but the truth is that streaming has filled the void left in me of not being able to go to the movies. In Madrid there are cinemas open, but the programming is very modest because the great films are hijacked by the studios. Even so, I still go at least once a week. I’m not such a fan of TV series, but the last one I’ve seen that I liked a lot is “The Queen’s Gambit” and I absolutely adore the actress, who I’ve read in an interview wants to work with me and I’m going to tell her yes. I will contact her to tell her absolutely because she has an appearance that’s very interesting to me; she can be a thousand different characters and she’s a very good actress. I also follow faithfully “The Crown,” which is a real spectacle. My struggle is that the model of the movie theatres does not disappear but coexist with the fiction on (streaming) platforms. It is very important to be in a room where the screen is much larger than the house where you live in. Big movies, good movies, deserve to absorb you completely.


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Sigal Ratner-Arias, The Associated Press