Pedro Almodóvar’s Madrid
Emerging after the death of dictator Francisco Franco, Spanish filmmaker Pedro Almodóvar became a pioneer of La Movida, the countercultural movement which embraced hedonism, freedom and wild sexuality following 40 years of fascist rule. While he was born in the small town of Castilla-La Mancha—Don Quixote land—Madrid became the center of Almodóvar’s universe. He depicts his beloved homeland in a new light, capturing abstract, almost cartoonish Madrid skylines. Pop art and Postmodern Italian design, among other influences, inspired him to communicate his characters’ emotions in film through vibrant colors, particularly in dramas like Volver, Bad Education, and Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown. Constantly seeking out the fringe, the Spanish auteur resists marginalization by featuring an ensemble of often overlooked characters of the time and place: the prostitutes and transvestites, the pill-popping housewives and the pregnant nuns. His films beautifully capture both the city he loved and the complexity of the people living there.
Paolo Sorrentino’s Rome
“Traveling is very useful: it makes your imagination work, everything else is just disappointment and trouble. Our journey is entirely imaginary, which is its strength.” Paolo Sorrentino’s La Grande Bellezza opens with this quote from Céline’s Journey to the End of the Night. From its dazzling first scenes of a birthday party on a rooftop overlooking the Colosseum, the seminal film paints a complex portrait of a city that exudes a culture of excess, one which—along with the film’s protagonist, Jep Gambardella—is, as the New York Times’ Rachel Donadio memorably put it, “embalmed in elegant decline.” In many ways, Sorrentino’s vivid set and eclectic styling choices speak to Jep’s own internal strife. While he dresses in fairly traditional Neapolitan suits throughout, the exaggerated colors of his clothes——lime green, butter yellow, electric orange——are the opposite of understatement. They’re over-the-top, yet undoubtedly seducing, much like the city of Rome itself.
In Il Divo, which chronicles the life of Giulio Andreotti—the country’s seven-time former prime minister who was ultimately tried for Mafia ties—Rome is again the second protagonist of the film. Sorrentino links Andreotti’s political rise and fall to the city itself, capturing its most historical streets, avenues, and institutions—including the grandly-clad halls of the Quirinale, the official residence of Italy’s head of state, atop the highest of the city’s seven hills—in brash, unreal light and tones.
Alfonso Cuarón’s Mexico
Steamy sex and forbidden territory are ever present in Y Tu Mamá También, Alfonso Cuarón’s rapturous coming-of-age adventure that traverses much of Mexico. From its opening glimpse into the interior mansion of one protagonist’s wealthy father through to the dusty, impoverished but often beautiful reaches of rural Mexico, his visuals hone in on the details: the blossoms of jacaranda trees, the tranquillity of a still lagoon. Cuarón captures sensual delights in virtually every facet of Mexican life——from the aquamarine Pacific-ocean inlets to classic sombreros and vivid red bandanas.
Roma, his 2018 semi-autobiographical award winner, further explored his multifaceted and complex country. Told through the eyes of a Mixtec woman, Cleo—a live-in domestic worker employed by a middle-class family that’s falling apart——Roma is very much about a place in time: 1970s Mexico City, on the cusp of intense social upheaval and change. Cuarón captures the soundscape of the city beautifully; as the camera moves through the family’s home, the looming sounds of the energetic metropolis——the constant construction, the distant rumble of cars and their shrieking horns, the humming of the lawnmowers——follow us inside. Cuarón’s films meditate on crucial questions around class and friendship against the pulsing colors, textures, and heat of Mexico’s ever-changing landscape.
Ang Lee’s Taiwan and China
Taiwanese filmmaker Ang Lee has made an illustrious career of observing——and bridging——the gap between East and West. In The Wedding Banquet, he explores the crisis of a gay Chinese man living with his white American boyfriend in Manhattan, whose life turns upside down when his conservative parents arrive from China for a visit. In Eat Drink Man Woman, he portrays Taipei as a vibrant and rapidly-changing Asian metropolis, evoking a modern culture characterized by the conflict between the old, collectivist Confucian virtue of xiào (filial piety) and the new Western ideals of individual happiness and gratification. But it was Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon——arguably Ang Lee’s most famed film——that made protagonists (and, briefly, celebrities) of China’s dramatic and hugely diverse landscapes, shooting through the vast stretches of the Gobi Desert, the lush bamboo groves of Anji in the South, and the imperial city of Changde in the North. The places in Lee’s films, along with the opulent period costumes and lavish decor, are what bring his “dream” China to life, with the green that is predominant throughout symbolizing the Confucian virtues of balance and harmony.