Spanish director Pedro Almodovar's new film, which opens next weekend, is about a group of passengers stuck on an airplane. It's a comedy: In between panicking, the passengers find time to fall in love, make love — and come out of the closet.
I'm So Excited is also a return to the filmmaker's roots. In one scene, the flight attendants attempt to calm down passengers by serving them drinks spiked with mescaline. It's a nod to a scene in one of Almodovar's most celebrated films, Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, in which police interrogate a woman in her home, then realize the gazpacho she served them is spiked with sleeping pills.
Women on the Verge catapulted Almodovar to international acclaim, something he never imagined. He says he never dreamed of becoming a famous director and winning awards; his dream was simply to become an underground director with a few friends.
That wasn't an easy dream for a young gay man living in Spain under the repressive regime of Francisco Franco. In the early 1970s, Almodovar shot one of his first shorts in the Spanish countryside, away from the government's watchful eye.
Almodovar's first full-length film came in 1980: Pepi, Luci, Bom Y Otras Chicas Del Monton (Pepi, Luci, Bom and Other Girls on the Heap). Spain had changed. Franco's death five years earlier led to an explosion of culture, music and art that celebrated sex, drugs and debauchery.
Despite critic's accusations that the films where trivial and hedonistic, Almodovar had plenty to say, says Isolina Ballesteros, who teaches Spanish literature and European film at Baruch College at City University of New York.
"From the start, his cinema was centered around transgression and the representation of marginalized protagonists such as women, homosexuals, transsexuals, drug addicts, psychopaths," she says. "But he was also doing this comic exposition of domestic violence, rape, incest, sadomasochism — and the subsequent subjection of female characters to them."
Almodovar never lost the camp, but moved to grimmer, darker themes. In 1999, his film All About My Mother addressed the AIDS epidemic and won an Oscar.
In one of the film's most recognizable scenes, a transgendered woman delivers a monologue about authenticity. She's listing the price of all the operations she's had: nose, breasts, eyes.
"When it comes to these things," she concludes, "you can't be cheap. You are more authentic the more you resemble what you've always dreamt of being."
Almodovar has managed to stay true to his own dream of being an underground director while also achieving mainstream success. In I'm So Excited — or Los Amores Pasajeros — his youthful goofiness is back. The passengers seem as worried about Spain's malfunctions as they are about their own plight: For years the country has been spiraling into an economic crisis punctuated by numerous corruption scandals.
Almodovar says that was the idea behind the stricken plane, circling, with no place to land. "When I wrote it, I tried to escape from reality," he says. "Everything happens among the clouds. The reality is on Earth ... but if you know how things are happening in Spain, about all the social problems we are having with this government, then for me this journey of these passengers, turning in circles, without knowing where they'll go ... this is like a metaphor of the Spanish society now."
Ballesteros agrees that Spain is headed for a crash landing — and Almodovar has a prescription for coping: Have fun, make love, and make amends to your loved ones.
Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.