‘They haven’t got rid of me’: Pedro Almodóvar on his struggle with Spain

Spain’s greatest living director tells Donald Clarke about the contemporary inspiration for his subversively light new comedy

Spain's greatest living film director seems just a little nervous. Now spouting a busy anemone of grey hair, Pedro Almodóvar has won an Oscar, competed for the Palme d'Or and received an honorary doctorate from Harvard. He has long been viewed as an ornament of his fine nation. But he has never before appeared on The Graham Norton Sho w. That space is not usually the natural habitat of the art-house film director.

“I am a little scared. My English is very poor and this guy is very witty,” he says (in perfectly decent English). “I don’t trust in my English and in my capacity to react. I am afraid I won’t reach up to what’s required. I saw two shows he did. He was nice and very quick. He’s very intelligent. And he’s gay – which is okay.”

Is he?

“Oh, I think so. Ha ha!”

The last director on the show was, I believe, Quentin Tarantino.

“Well he is very talkative and a great writer,” Almodóvar says. “And he speaks English – even if it is American. Ha ha!”

In the event, our Graham Norton takes good care of Pedro. Long at home to camp, Almodóvar would always have seemed a more likely candidate for the Norton treatment than, say, Michael Haneke (though one would happily pay to see that match-up). But Almodóvar's new film, I'm So Excited , is particularly suitable for analysis on the coloured couch.

When Almodóvar started out, working surreptitiously in the puritanical Franco era, he forged a reputation for a school of transgressive comedy that singed your eyes with its brassy colours. More recent films such as Volver and Bad Education seem, by comparison, positively respectable.

The new picture brings us right back to that cheeky material of the 1980s. Almost entirely set on an aeroplane bound for Mexico, I'm So Excited finds the outrageously camp air stewards coping erratically with a looming catastrophe. The plane's undercarriage is damaged and no airport seems able to offer a solution to the crisis. As the aircraft circles hopelessly, the crew drink cocktails, flirt outrageously and sing along to the titular Pointer Sisters single.

“People say the film is the lightest I’ve done for a while,” Almodóvar ponders. “That’s true. But that’s not a pejorative thing. This is where I started in the 1980s – with crazy comedies. I wanted to go back to that. I wanted to go back to the feeling of that period. It was a wonderful decade for the Spanish. People were discovering democracy. There was a new kind of freedom. I wanted to offer a tribute to the 1980s.”

Do we also detect an effort to escape the current economic malaise? Few countries in Europe have been so damaged by the financial meltdown as Spain.

“Absolutely. This is my reaction to the appalling situation we are living through in Spain. But also in Spain the film has a very clear political reading. It’s how we live now.”

This strange, busy, outrageous film begins to make sense. The passengers are suspended in a kind of awful limbo. No escape is apparent. The rich in business class are, at least, offered the opportunity to party their way to oblivion. Those in steerage, meanwhile, are drugged into oblivious comas.

“The film is a metaphor for the uncertainty that Spain is living through,” he says. “We need to make an emergency landing. The politicians don’t seem to know what’s going to happen. The passengers are Spain.”

Pedro Almodóvar has seen a great deal of Spanish history pass him by. Raised in a working-class corner of La Mancha, he terrified his mother by fleeing the countryside at 17 and making for Madrid with mad notions of becoming a film-maker. Franco had just closed the film school, but Pedro and a group of like-minded bohemians found ways to knock together subversive high-energy entertainments. He worked at the phone company for a full 12 years to support his film-making habit.

How difficult was it to make sexually adventurous cinema in a fascist state? One imagines censorship must have been an issue.

“Those first shorts were all shot secretly,” he says. “We were underground. We were clandestine. It was the early 1970s when I started making Super-8 films. We made them out in the country. We were able to use natural light. But also nobody could see what we were doing. I made my debut feature eventually in 1979. That would have been impossible before. Suddenly we were in a real democracy. If Franco had lived another 10 years I think I would have had to move to France or whatever.”

The sudden liberalisation of Spain that followed Franco's death in 1975 is one of the oddest stories in European history. Almost overnight, the country changed from a fascist dictatorship to a democratic monarchy. Almodóvar's wild feature debut, Pepi, Luci, Bom , now looks like a conscious celebration of the era. One wonders if he and his chums saw this revolution coming. Perhaps, they knew something the rest of the world didn't.

“We were very surprised,” he says. “We were above all surprised that it happened without blood. It was immediate. Blood is very tied up in our history. It’s a divided country. Now, it is clearer than ever again that we are divided. But, back then, it was amazing. We had to educate ourselves for democracy.”

It didn't take long for Almodóvar to accumulate acclaim overseas. Early films such as Labyrinth of Passion and Dark Habits made little impact outside Spain. But, by the end of the 1980s, the world had caught up with What Have I Done to Deserve This?!, Matador and Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! .

The films, consciously or not, played on foreign stereotypes concerning Spain (brash, flamboyant, outrageous) while smuggling fresh intelligence about the new emerging democracy. They were fun. But they were often deadly serious.

"I remember all that very well," he says. "I can remember Matador was a real cult in the UK. It was a strange moment. People outside were seriously interested in our country. We had been culturally kidnapped for 40 years. Then these rumours emerged that we were changing. People went to Madrid and had endlessly funny nights. They came back and said: 'You have to see this.' I appeared when that curiosity was everywhere. It was all part of the same thing."

I wonder if he is surprised by what other nationalities make of his films. Whereas somebody such as Luis Buñuel was forced to leave Spain and work in France and Mexico, Almodóvar has remained close to his roots. We must take him as he is.

"It's funny," he says. "I notice the British really like the darker films. Films like The Skin I Live In and Matador , which are so black, go down well in England and places like that. What does that mean?"

Almodóvar goes on to explain how the politics of Spain have soured in recent years. The recent economic catastrophes have, he claims, reopened wounds that have festered since the Civil War. Once again right and left wings are forming themselves into separate nations.

“They haven’t healed,” he says, suddenly animated. “There’s no question. Nobody tried to heel the wounds of the losing side. Three generations later people are still trying to find grandparents buried in mass graves. This is not a political problem. This is a problem of humanity.”

How does Almodóvar's art fit into all this? All decent patriots must surely celebrate his international success. Well, maybe. Though his films are inclusive, nobody sitting through, say, Bad Education or I'm So Excited could be any doubt where the director's political allegiances lie. Proudly gay, working-class, from a rural background, he argues strongly for an open Spain that embraces all classes and all eccentricities.

“To be honest, I don’t understand my popularity,” he chortles. “When I started making films it was this moment of a great creative explosion. Everyone temporarily forgot their differences. They are not tourist films, but Spanish culture is very present in them. They are very exaggerated. They are not real. I wonder why that became popular. I am always asking myself that.”

But what about the right-wing in Spain? Do they accept his camp celebration of difference? It’s still a Catholic nation.

"Oh, I have been a bête noir with them since 2004," he says. "I was very talkative at that time. I remember talking about the Madrid bombings in that year. They lied and said it was Eta. It wasn't. I spoke very clearly and became very unpopular with the right."

Persona non grata?

“Not even that, actually. They just rejected me and decided to ignore me. Just put him to one side. But happily, they don’t control all the means of production.”

Almodóvar cackles and wags his grey had.

“So I am still present in a great many ways. They haven’t got rid of me.”

Good news for us all.