Fascism appears to have had a rather complicated influence on the development of Spanish cinema. When the dust finally settled on the Spanish civil war and cultural elites began surveying the damage, they realised that nearly all of Spain’s cinematic history had been consumed by the flames of war. However, despite 90% of Spain’s silent films not surviving the war, the eagerness on both sides to use film as a means of distributing propaganda meant that fascist Spain wound up with an extraordinarily vibrant tradition of left-wing filmmaking. The history of Spain’s cinematic institutions is a story in which every attempt to bring the Spanish film industry under direct government control seems to have ended in subversion by the left. Hardly surprising then that General Franco wound up admitting defeat and shutting down a number of prestigious film schools.
This process of subversion in plain sight is not without historical precedent. Indeed, one of the most obvious influences on the career of Pedro Almodóvar was the American director Douglas Sirk whose films looked a lot like melodramas marketed at middle-class women but contained coded references to all sorts of marginalised identities. One of the great pleasures of The Almodovar Collection is watching the development of an artistic sensibility and the attempt to transform the hidden resonances of Sirkian melodrama into dramas that spoke directly and transparently to the downtrodden, the marginalised, and the dispossessed. While Dark Habits can be viewed as an homage to the Sirkian tradition as explored in the overtly LGBT films of Rainer Werner Fassbinder, What Have I Done to Deserve This? takes the melodrama of Douglas Sirk and combines it with the leftist realism of the Italian Neorealists resulting in a wonderfully surreal slice of ordinary domesticity.
The film opens with a cleaning lady having sex with a man in the showers of her local gym. The sex ends badly and the couple part under a cloud of awkwardness but it’s the kind of kinetic opening you’d expect to unravel over the course of a ninety minute film. However, as soon as the cleaning lady returns home, you realise that sex at the local gym is actually business as usual.
Gloria (Carmen Maura) lives in a tiny apartment with the rest of her family. Forced to spend all day cleaning the homes of wealthier people, she returns home only to spend her evenings cooking, cleaning and doing favours for the people that surround her. Somewhat unsurprisingly, she is hopelessly addicted to uppers. Her husband Antonio (Ángel de Andrés López) complains about working long hours and demands that his wife wait on him hand and foot but in reality he spends his days chatting to clients and feeding his obsession with an aging German chanteuse. The couple’s eldest son Toni also complains about the lack of food on the table and the lack of attention paid to him by his mother but he spends all day dealing drugs and squirrelling the money away in a secret bank account.
One of the most interesting things about this film is the way that Almodóvar uses money both as a symbol and a thing being symbolised. For example, when Antonio forges letters that his favourite chanteuse transforms into best-selling memoirs, it is clear that Almodóvar wants us to consider the way that Antonio is using his money-making talents to enrich everyone except his wife and family. Similarly, when the eldest son makes a fortune selling drugs while his mother struggles to make ends meet, we are encouraged to take this as symbolic of a general lack of attention and affection. Conversely, when Antonio’s mother brings home a green lizard called Money, Almodóvar positions him in shot during every argument as a way of saying that money is at the root of all the family’s problems. The effect can be rather distracting but the combination of Neorealist ideology and Sirkian evasiveness does give the film a rather uniquely surreal edge.
Like many of Almodóvar’s films, What Have I Done to Deserve This? is an explicitly feminist work whose story rests upon a strong female character played by an actress capable of projecting a combination of presence and vulnerability. It’s not just that Carmen Maura is superb as a character who manages to preserve her dignity when dealing with a succession of dysfunctional capitalist patriarchs; it’s that Almodóvar helps us to understand the strength of the character by comparing her plight to that of the other characters.
In true neorealist fashion, Gloria is a woman who is beaten down by the injustices of the capitalist system. Her husband is a waste of hair; her eldest son is a waste of time, and even her romantic dalliances end in humiliation. However, while Gloria seems to suffer every single day of her life, the film concludes with the revelation that she never lost her pride or her agency unlike some of the other women in her life. For example, Gloria’s best friend Cristal (Verónica Forqué) has managed to find happiness but this happiness is entirely dependent upon her responding to every attempt at sexual objectification with an enthusiastic grin. Conversely, another of Gloria’s friends named Juani (Kiti Manver) has managed to retain her dignity and remain solvent but only by taking all of her unhappiness and dumping it on the head of her angelic red-headed daughter.
Much like the earlier Dark Habits, What Have I Done to Deserve This? is a profoundly humane and moral film. Sure… its plot is littered with murder, prostitution, drug dealing and a mother who sells her pre-pubescent son to a paedophile dentist but Almodóvar never once allows social transgression to become exploitation. The film’s final shot only serves to underline the director’s moral seriousness as zooming out from Gloria on her balcony to a shot of three vast apartment complexes serves to universalise the lessons of the film. This is not about one woman’s fight to retain her dignity; this is about a battle fought every day on every street and in every building.