In Pedro Almodóvar's most recent film, the noir thriller Bad Education, a flashback to early-'60s Spain shows a budding romance between two young Catholic schoolboys, Enrique and Ignacio. Their relationship is torn apart by a jealous priest who wants Ignacio all to himself. Fifteen years later, Enrique is a successful filmmaker, entwined in a loveless affair with an actor who claims to be Ignacio and wants revenge on the pedophiliac priest.
The film is darker than most from the acclaimed Spanish director, but its mix of gender bending, unabashed eroticism and disdain for the Catholic Church is an Almodóvar trademark. And this time, the tide of history seems to be with him. Bad Education opened in Spain in March 2004; six months later, the new Socialist government enraged the Church by drafting a bill to allow gay couples to marry.
Spain now officially treats gays and straights as equals, but Almodóvar, 56, has been doing that for decades. He grew up in the shadow of a sexually repressive Church and an everything-repressive fascism under dictator Francisco Franco. When he first picked up a camera near the end of Franco's regime (and taught himself how to use it, since Franco had closed down Madrid's film school) homosexuality was still taboo. But Almodóvar used his early films to liberate his soul, creating a kind of gay fantasyland onscreen. With characters like the lesbian nun in Dark Habits (1983), the male love triangle in The Law of Desire (1986) and the transsexual with a heart of gold in the Oscar-winning All About My Mother (1999), he portrays homosexuals in a way few filmmakers dared: as ordinary people who happen to have extraordinary stories.
At a time when being gay could still get you beaten up or thrown in jail, Almodóvar was making films that celebrated sexual diversity, where men, women and men dressed as women tried to find themselves by sleeping with each other. When Spain passed its gay marriage law in July, Almodóvar was one of the first to speak up. "It's a historic day, but it is only politics at last catching up with society," he told a press conference. "My films haven't changed society, merely supported the progress it was making."
Almodóvar was not always so outspoken. Spain's legacy of repression was so strong that even though the rest of the world embraced him as a gay iconoclast, he was reluctant to take up the role in his own country. He only recently started discussing his sexuality in the Spanish press, and still keeps his private life private. "He has admitted he is gay and that is all we have ever got out of him," says Arnaldo Gancedo, president of Spain's Confederation of Gays, Lesbians and Transsexuals. "He has never supported us, or any gay movements."
But since Franco's death in 1975, Spain has been moving toward the liberal nation Almodóvar imagines in his movies: contraception was legalized in 1978, divorce in 1981 and abortion in 1985. Gradually, Almodóvar began making personal as well as cinematic statements about his beliefs. At the 2003 Oscars, he used his prestige to protest the war in Iraq, dedicating his Best Screenplay award for Talk to Her to "those who are raising their voices in favor of peace, human rights, democracy and international legality." The legalization of same-sex marriage was an Almodóvarian dream come true, too good to keep quiet about.
And Spain's rebellious son still clearly feels he has work to do. Almodóvar remains committed to portraying and celebrating homosexual relationships in all their complexity. Defined by their sexual orientation but never restrained by it, his gay characters
are more passionate and complicated than the stereotypes hysterical sidekick, sensitive best friend, hairdresser that Hollywood usually serves up. "I never get tired of watching how he observes other people and how they live," says Penélope Cruz, who's currently shooting The Return, her third film with Almodóvar. "He is curious about everything."
Film fans agree, recognizing Almodóvar as a champion of the mistreated and marginalized in modern cinema. It's a role he excels in, though he's wary of being typecast because of his sexuality. "No one talks about the heterosexual President of the United States," he told Spanish newspaper El Mundo in June. "So why should they call me a gay director?" Because by pushing against boundaries and ripping up clichés, he's brought clout to the gay cause and helped Spain become a more tolerant place.