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Cinema of desire 

Eight films by Pedro Almodvar show off his strengths and weaknesses

click to enlarge Cecilia Roth and Eloy Azorin in Pedro Almodóvar's All About My Mother - PHOTO COURTESY OF SONY PICTURES CLASSICS

Pedro Almodóvar is surely one of the most famous filmmakers in the world, even for those who've never been to the candy-colored, romantically topsy-turvy Madrid we see in his films.

In the sort of film series not usually found outside of cultural capitals such as New York, the Galaxy Cinema is showing a series of eight Almodóvar films, old and new, in time for the upcoming release of the Spanish master's latest, Volver. His five most recent films, including Bad Education, Live Flesh and Flower of My Secret, are accounted for, as are several of his early, rowdier films, including Law of Desire and Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown.

Taken collectively, these films illustrate the grand moral universe of Almodóvar, an artist who came upon the scene as Spain emerged from the grip of Generalissimo Franco. Almodóvar was the voice and eyes and mocking laughter of the new Spain reborn after fascism, after Catholicism, in search of new identities and more perfect social unions.

Although there are those who fear the declining relevance of international art cinema, there's no question that Almodóvar is famous in the way Federico Fellini was, or Woody Allen used to be. All of these directors represent a distinctive brand of filmmaking that is identified with certain cities and personalities.

But this sort of instant identification carries an obvious pitfall. While fame and adulation may be the result of furious, iconoclastic energy, there is the danger of self-parody and excessive self-referentiality. For me, Almodóvar's self-important phase began with Talk to Her, a film from 2002 that was garlanded with prizes the world over. A loud minority, however, thought it was a plodding and ultimately repulsive film larded with Lincoln Center-subscription series touchstones like Pina Bausch and a seaside Caetano Veloso concert, plus an unseemly aestheticizing of the corrida. To be sure, Talk to Her looked gorgeous, but it was a gaudy objet d'art that the youthful Almodóvar would have had little time for.

For a healthy corrective to the slickness of middle-aged Almodóvar, the series at the Galaxy offers an opportunity to see Matador from way back in 1986. Like Talk to Her, Matador involves bullfighting, but the more recent film treats it in a much more solemn way, taking seriously the ancient Spanish tradition of tormenting those animals. Matador's madcap plot, un-self-conscious actors and cheerful nose-thumbing at the sacred institutions of Spain (here, bullfighting and sex) make for a liberating experience.

Another pairing of old and new that favors the younger Almodóvar is Bad Education (2004) and Law of Desire (1987), both of which feature plots about gay film artists and their affairs with younger men. Although there's a curious sourness to both films' depictions of male relationships (a relatively scarce scenario in Almodóvar's work), Law of Desire is sweetened considerably by lovely, delicate performances from Carmen Maura as a transsexual porn actress and Manuela Velasco as her Lolita-esque surrogate daughter.

Of the more recent films in the series, the biggest must-see is All About My Mother, Almodóvar's 1999 masterpiece in which his varied obsessions amalgamated into a cinematic tour de force. Estranged mothers and sons, births and deaths, whores and nuns, low living and high culture, and magnificently dignified middle-aged divas: It's all here. The most crucial ingredient, however, is the presence of Cecilia Roth in her lone starring role for Almodóvar. Roth's performance as a bereaved mother who rebuilds her life with a new family is so singularly moving that it reminds you that movies aren't all about the director and his vision: They're also about actors and the characters they play.

The Viva Pedro series runs through Thursday, Oct. 19. Passes to all eight films are $30; passes to four films cost $20; individual tickets cost $7.50. The Galaxy Cinema is located at 770 Cary Towne Blvd. in Cary. For a full schedule and more information, call 463-9989 or visit Galaxy Cinema.

Viva Pedro: Eight films by Pedro Almodóvar
Now playing through Oct. 19 at Galaxy Cinema

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