It’s hard to describe a Pedro Almodovar film to someone without inevitably sounding like you’re pulling back the chintzy velvet curtain on a perverse, somewhat confusing soap opera.
“Okay, so the gay son dies in this tragic, rain-drenched accident after seeing A Streetcar Named Desire. Then his beautiful mother runs off to Barcelona, where she winds up befriending a weepy pregnant nun with HIV, an aging lesbian actress and a wisecracking transvestite escort. Sisterhood, heartbreak and dizzying wallpaper designs ensue.”
See what I mean?
But while they sound sudsy, Almodovar films are so much more than just a telenovela on a hefty dose of Viagra.
In fact, he’s a remarkably diverse filmmaker: traipsing effortlessly from campy farces that would make Lucille Ball cackle from her grave (see Women on The Verge of a Nervous Breakdown or I’m So Excited) to labyrinthine dramas smudged with crimson lipstick, and waist-deep in symbolism (think Talk To Her, Bad Education and Broken Embraces).
Somehow though, while wildly vacillating between genres and styles, Almodovar has still managed to develop the distinct, recognizable touch of an auteur.
Like a strange hybrid flower (grafted from equal parts Douglas Sirk, Agnès Varda and John Waters), Almodovar’s oeuvre is speckled with reoccurring themes, imagery, actors and locales that are gloriously his own.
Consider then, if this groundbreaking Spaniard directed, as many (oft-misguided) foreign filmmakers have done before him, an American film. Now skip ahead to 1992, when a script about a showgirl moonlighting as a nun lands on a producer’s marble desk. Having already seen Almodovar's nuns-gone-wild 1983 film, Dark Habits, said producer places a call to Madrid. Negotiations are had, compromises made, first-class airline tickets booked Almodovar is in the building people.
These are five minor changes one might have noticed, had Pedro Almodovar been the brassy gay magician behind one of America’s most beloved family comedies, Sister Act :
1. SETTING: Wether it’s a crumbling, mildewed apartment block (What Have I Done to Deserve This?) or a town of snaking cobblestone alleys (Volver), Almodovar shares the same motto as every sweaty realtor during a property investment seminar “LOCATION, LOCATION, LOCATION!” So forget the semi-urban San Francisco abbey shared by the sisters of St. Katherine’s in the original, Almodovar’s Sister Act takes place on an unnamed Balearic island off the coast of Cataluna. There’s no electricity (leave your hot rollers at the door Deloris) and the abbey comes complete with a sensory deprivation tank (for either punishment or reward – depending on your mood.) Oh, and the hilly township also teeters on the precipice side of an active volcano. It began spewing lava once, but thankfully Reverend Mother tossed in a neighborhood virgin as an offering and it chilled the fuck out.
2. CAST: Let’s get one thing straight; nobody replaces Whoopi Goldberg. Nobody. While Almodovar tends to utilize the same cast of gloriously oddball character actors (Carmen Maura, Victoria Abril, Lola Dueñas) he left Goldberg, Maggie Smith and Kathy Najimy in place. There were slight alterations of course: Smith’s Reverend Mother wears a Madonna-esque cone bra at all times and Najimy’s Sister Mary Patrick has a sexual predilection for satin sheets and autoerotic asphyxiation. He also threw Penélope Cruz in as the village prostitute, and Verónica Forqué replaces Harvey Keitel as the evil mob boss- Forqué using her Virginia Woolf-ian nose to sniff out Deloris’s hideout.
3. DELORIS: Almodovar loves his protagonists to be crazed and on the lam (a la Antonio Baderas in Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! & Law of Desire), almost as much as he loves them to be bananas pop stars or actresses (Labyrinth of Passion, High Heels, Kika). While the original Sister Act has Deloris inhabiting both these traits, she’s still a lil’ too vanilla. In Almodovar’s version, Deloris is a tough, transgender opera singer who also has a penchant for bare-knuckled cage-fighting at an underground BDSM club. One night her estranged son appears, begging her to protect him from Scarlett O’Heroin- the leader of a glamorous gang of lesbian heroin dealers. Deloris kills the bitch dead, pocketing a brick of high-quality black tar and heading to the abbey when she discovers O’Herion’s lover (Forqué) is hot on her (rabbit fur) coattails.
4. MUSIC: Everyone loves the gospel hymns of Sister Act. Everyone but Almodovar. This is the guy whose debut film Pepi, Luci, Bom had a teenage Siouxsie Sioux wannabe spitting out punk songs before beating up cops. His films are scored with bold, baroque instrumentals, glittery 80s synth, and plucky Catalan classics courtesy of an elderly guitarist who whispers mysterious lyrics while we watch a muscled dude’s bubble-butt ripple its way across the surface of a candle-lit pool. So when Almodovar’s Deloris teaches the nuns to sing, it aint gonna be ‘Joyful Joyful’. No siree! Those nuns will be belting out an operatic cover of The Runaways’ ‘Cherry Bomb’ while Reverend Mother shreds away at a bejeweled keytar. Hallelujah indeed!
5. THE MORAL: While Deloris never kneels down and proclaims Jesus as her lord and savior, the original Sister Act definitely implies that the good Christian values exemplified by the sisters of St. Katherine’s have helped Deloris see the light. Not on Almodovar’s watch my friends. He’s going to knock out that light with a solid leather dildo and replace it with a seedy red lantern. After Deloris and her sisters defeat the nefarious lesbians, they’re left with a booty of heroin so mighty it would make William Burroughs queasy. While the nuns don’t turn their back on the church, they do however shuck the vow of poverty and become the number one drug-peddling crew west of the Mediterranean Sea. Reverend Mother is finally able to afford a new latex cone-bra and Sister Mary Patrick gets booked for an adults-only episode of TLC’s My Strange Addiction.
What about Deloris? She settles down with a nice, blood-thirty Matador and starts a biblical-themed trip hop record label called D3ADly S!nZ. She’s the thieving, transgender heroin queen of Spain, and the singing nun that stole America’s heart.
Anton De Ionno