Spain's Almod'ovar winning recognition as filmmaker

Pedro Almod'ovar has emerged as the most promising new Spanish filmmaker in a long while. This became official at this year's Telluride Film Festival, where Mr. Almod'ovar received an evening-length tribute complete with a screening of his comedy ``Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown'' and assorted clips from other works. ``Women on the Verge'' then opened the New York filmfest, and is being shown in theaters.

This expertly made comedy is likely to be Europe's most popular screen export of the year, but that doesn't mean all of Almod'ovar's films are for all moviegoers. He has a penchant for the outrageous, and pictures such as ``Law of Desire'' and ``Matador'' often fly wildly past conventional boundaries of taste and decency.

``Women on the Verge'' finds the Spanish filmmaker in a mellow mood, however. There's some sexually tinged humor and a bit of foul language, but most of the action is lightheaded fun. The picture also has a striking visual style - showing what a strong talent Almod'ovar can be when he focuses his energy on cinematic values, instead of dreaming up provocative stunts that put his work beyond the pale for many moviegoers.

Not that ``Women on the Verge'' is a hymn to the status quo of Western civilization. Almod'ovar packs a lot of sly punches into this colorful farce about an actress on the trail of a wandering boyfriend. The jokes and gags in the movie aren't just for fun, moreover. They're barbed comments on the little lies and not-so-little hypocrisies that pepper everyday life in so-called polite society.

This pungency is no accident. ``Humor is very important,'' said Almod'ovar at the Telluride filmfest, ``not just in film but also in life. I'm usually accustomed to making films that have a harder edge to them, but humor is a perfect `lubricant' for the spectator. You can say shocking things, and ... the spectator can receive them much more easily. Humor is a special means not just of understanding life, but interpreting it, as well.''

The heroine of ``Women on the Verge'' is Pepa, an actress whose detergent commercials have made her a household name, at least in the kitchen. She's in love with Ivan, but he's been untrue, and now he's about to fly away with another woman. Pepa decides to track him down and take revenge.

While she's in the middle of this project, though, her apartment starts to fill up - like a middle-class version of the Marx Brothers' famous ``stateroom scene'' - with other people in Ivan's life: his angry ex-wife, his wimpy son, and the son's sleepy fianc'ee. Not to mention a friend of Pepa, who's just found out that her boyfriend is a terrorist with an evil scheme a-hatching.

What makes ``Women on the Verge'' memorable isn't its plot or even its performances, although these are a delight, especially when Carmen Maura strides across the screen as our feisty heroine. The secret to the movie's success is its bubbly, not-quite-realistic atmosphere - a kind of gentle, carefully controlled delirium. The picture could never be mistaken for a slice of life; the colors are a shade too bright, the d'ecor a shade too expressive, the acting a shade too assertive. Yet every nuance of word, gesture, and behavior is instantly - and often ruefully - recognizable, at least if you've noticed the absurdity that's built into normal life in the late 20th century.

Almod'ovar said at Telluride that American comedy was one of his key ``references'' when he started shooting ``Women on the Verge,'' and this was clearly a valuable influence. ``I was inspired by that atmosphere,'' he said, ``by that kind of rhythm. The tempo is very important to the actors.''

Almod'ovar acknowledges a fascination with the late Luis Bunuel, the greatest of all Spanish filmmakers. ``Like him,'' Almod'ovar says, ``I don't try to justify the irrational in my films. ... If there are rules in comedy, that's one of the principal rules: to make credible that which isn't, without having to explain it.''

Despite the air of artifice that it carries so proudly, ``Women on the Verge'' never becomes as aggressively surreal as a Bunuel picture like ``The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie'' or other, darker specimens of his work. Bunuel's influence is clearly present in the freewheeling momentum that Almod'ovar gives his movie, though, and in its almost dreamlike mixture of characters, settings, and plot twists. ``Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown'' has firm roots in the Spanish film tradition. Yet it's unquestionably an original - a biting farce that hovers deftly between the all-too-fantastic and the all-too-real.

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