Pedro Almodóvar is entering his fifth decade as a director. The Spanish master of melodrama and creating complex, challenging stories for women and queer people started his career as a punk filmmaker in post-Franco Madrid with 1980’s Pepi, Luci, Bom, an outrageous, John Waters-esque comedy about female sexuality. Forty-one years and over twenty films later, Almodóvar stands as one of the most respected, thoughtful filmmakers in the world, noted for his colorful production designs and ability to tell transgressive stories with a progressive heart. Over the course of his career, he has accumulated a tremendous cavalcade of actors willing to show up for his projects time and time again, whether they be lead or small supporting roles. These include Antonio Banderas, Rossy de Palma, Carmen Maura, Chus Lampreave, Cecilia Roth, Javier Cámara, and Marisa Paredes.
For the last twenty-five years, arguably his greatest acting collaborator is Penélope Cruz, who has appeared in seven of Almodóvar’s last eleven films. Their latest project together, Parallel Mothers, has already earned Cruz the Best Actress award wins from the Los Angeles Film Critics Association and the Venice Film Festival, looking likely for her to be a solid contender this awards season. Let us look back at Almodóvar and Cruz’s exceptional partnership and rank their seven feature films.
7. I’m So Excited! (2013)
In the 21st Century, Almodóvar has largely avoided the outrageous comedies that he started out his career making, as he has become far more interested in character-based melodramas. His one attempt at a throwback to those early films was I’m So Excited!, a sex farce set aboard an airplane with inoperable landing gear. Much like when Steven Spielberg attempts to recapture the feeling of his early genre pictures with movies like The Adventures of Tintin or Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, Almodóvar struggles to fully lock back into his old style.
I’m So Excited! is not without its share of funny gross-out gags and features a sequence of three flamboyantly gay flight attendants lip-syncing along to the titular song by The Pointer Sisters that is an utter delight, but the film misses an extra gear to make it a laugh riot. Penélope Cruz appears in a small cameo in the first scene alongside fellow Almodóvar favorite, Antonio Banderas, as a married couple working at the airport. She crashes a luggage cart and reveals she is pregnant, causing Banderas’ character to forget to properly remove the chocks from the plane’s wheel. While not a disaster by any means, this is a rare miss by Almodóvar.
6. Live Flesh (1997)
Next up is Live Flesh, the first time Cruz worked on an Almodóvar film. Similar to I’m So Excited!, she only appears in the film’s opening scene, but instead of announcing she is pregnant, she actually goes into labor and has a baby, though most certainly not for comedy this time. Cruz plays a young sex worker during a time in Franco’s reign where a “state of emergency” has been declared and civil liberties are being revoked. In the middle of the night, she and the madam that runs the brothel that she works at manage to convince a highly annoyed and dismissive bus driver to get them to the hospital, until she eventually has to have the baby on the bus.
The film cuts to a few decades later, and we follow her grown up son (Liberto Rabal) and his entanglement in the marriage between a sober orphanage employee (Francesca Neri) and her wheelchair-bound, former cop husband (Javier Bardem, Cruz’s real-life husband). Live Flesh is a fantastic psychosexual drama/thriller where Almodóvar places no judgment on any of his characters and lets their messy relationships with one another play out organically, forcing the audience to find allegiances with some pretty unsavory people and reconsider their own desires. Cruz’s small performance helps to establish the heightened tone of the film that only snowballs across its running time.
5. Broken Embraces (2009)
Broken Embraces, while receiving generally favorable reviews upon release, did not receive the rapturous response as Volver did three years earlier (more on that film later), which earned Penélope Cruz her first Oscar nomination. Almodóvar dove head first into the space of film noir and romantic thriller for his tale of retired blind filmmaker, Harry Caine (Lluís Homar), recounting the story of his relationship with aspiring actress, Lena (Cruz), who is the mistress of millionaire Ernesto Martel (José Luis Gómez).
Broken Embraces, in a lot of ways, is textbook Almodóvar, covering complicated romantic entanglements, the power men have over women, and dissecting cinematic tropes, all while bathing in gorgeous production design. Cruz gets to play so many layers in this role, as her character always has to put on new faces depending on which person she interacts with, and she and Homar have undeniable chemistry with one another. Plus, she has the incredibly difficult task of playing scenes in the film within the film (inspired by Almodóvar’s own Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown) in ways that would get a lot of laughs and ways that would fall totally flat. The story may get a tiny bit shaggy as the plot revelations pile on top of one another, but they come with the territory with this kind of story. Broken Embraces is one of Almodóvar’s most underrated pictures. It also has a fun “calling his shot” moment for Almodóvar as one of Caine’s screenplays in the film is called Parallel Mothers.
4. Parallel Mothers (2021)
Almodóvar and Cruz’s newest film is one of their finest. For as often as Almodóvar makes films about mothers, rarely are they centered around new mothers. Cruz plays Janis, a fashion photographer having a child on the cusp of 40, and she meets Ana (Milena Smit), a teenager still under the care of her own mother (Aitana Sánchez-Gijón) in the maternity ward who also about to give birth. The fathers of both the children are out of the picture for different reasons. After the births of their children, their lives start to criss-cross in ways best left to be seen in the film. Almodóvar makes many movies about found families and the unit that forms in Parallel Mothers is one of the simplest, strongest, and most beautiful. That found family is also set against Janis’ desire to unearth an unmarked mass grave from the Spanish Civil War she believes her grandfather is in, making for one of his most poignant movies on the importance of family and knowing your history. Obviously, not many people have had the chance yet to experience Almodóvar’s latest, and if you are new to his work, this film is a wonderful place to jump on and see why he and Cruz make such magic together.
3. Pain and Glory (2019)
With all his stories about mothers, it was only a matter of time before Penélope Cruz essentially played Almodóvar’s mom, which is the case in Pain and Glory. The attention, rightfully, for the film was around Antonio Banderas’ Oscar-nominated performance for playing a filmmaker suffering both mentally and physically who reconnects with an actor he once closely worked with but hasn’t seen in many years. We see Cruz in flashbacks as his mother raising the young boy in their stark white cave home in the 1960s, as the boy begins to realize he is gay.
Pain and Glory is Almodóvar’s most autobiographical film, as the characters are pretty thin analogs to the people in his life. Cruz talked in many interviews about her experience being around his mother over the years directly influencing her performance in the film. You can feel the warmth and care with which she plays that role without sugarcoating her at all. Almodóvar clearly loved his mother but does not make her this otherworldly, saintly figure. Really, no other person could have played that part and given it the lived-in experience required of it. Every second of Pain and Glory is both masterful and poignant, but those flashbacks to the boy and his mother have this beautiful, indefinable quality to them.
2. Volver (2006)
Volver was Penélope Cruz’s first time as the lead in an Almodóvar picture, and after being in the wilderness of Hollywood for a few years (Sahara, anyone?), she returned to give the performance of a lifetime, justly earning her first Academy Award nomination. Much like Parallel Mothers can be found in Broken Embraces, the story of Volver comes out of a novel written within Almodóvar’s 1995 film, The Flower of My Secret. Blending everything from melodrama to farce to a ghost story, Volver follows Cruz’s Raimunda trying to hide the corpse of her dead husband, who was killed by their daughter after he tried to rape her in the freezer of the restaurant next door.
Meanwhile, her sister, Sole (Lola Dueñas), believes the ghost of their mother (Carmen Maura) has found them and has the mother pose as a Russian immigrant working in Sole’s hair salon in her apartment. There is a lot going on here. Cruz gets to play high comedy, real tragedy, tremendous moments of beauty and gets to be very sexy. Volver feels like every kind of film Almodóvar makes rolled into one, and never for a second do any of the tones clash with one another, perfectly walking that impossibly narrow tightrope. It’s a movie that needs to be seen to truly understand why it’s so impactful.
1. All About My Mother (1999)
While Volver may be Cruz’s best performance in an Almodóvar film, All About My Mother stands as the take-it-to-the-grave masterpiece of his career. His tale of grieving mother Manuela (Cecilia Roth) reconnecting with the women of her past in the sex worker circle of Barcelona never fails to reach deep inside your heart. Each character is treated with so much compassion and love and showcases Almodóvar’s deep affection and admiration for women better than any of his other works. Cruz plays a young nun named Rosa, who is pregnant and HIV positive. It’s a truly luminous performance that makes you see how Almodóvar realized he could keep mining her for more and more depth and range as their collaboration continued for the next 20+ years.
Remarkably, All About My Mother is the only time an Almodóvar film won the Best International Feature Academy Award (Spain also has a habit of not choosing his films as their Oscar submission, such as with Parallel Mothers this year), and it really elevated his standing to someone who didn’t just make bold, morally complicated films. He was now a venerated dramatist and one of the medium’s finest, and the four picture run starting with this and ending with Volver, couching between them Talk to Her and Bad Education, is as good a run as any filmmaker has ever had. All About My Mother came out in the landmark year for cinema of 1999 and stands as one of the year’s crowning achievements, along with being at the top of Pedro Almodóvar’s filmography.
Penélope Cruz and Pedro Almodóvar’s seven films together show an enormous range of what these two artists are capable of creating together, and one should expect that they are far from finished with working with one another. They stand as one of the great actor/director pairings of the modern era, always perfectly in sync with each other to make truly beautiful art. Always challenging, always moving, always exciting. If you can, please go check out Parallel Mothers in theaters this awards season, and if not, go watch all of the other six terrific films they have made together. Actually, do that regardless. They are more than worth your time.