Agrado, “All About My Mother” (Antonia San Juan)
When Aregntine nurse Manuela loses her 17-year-old son in a tragic car accident, she quits her job and journeys to Barcelona in hopes of reconnecting with the boy’s father. A longtime proponent of bringing trans identities to the big screen, Almodóvar outdoes himself when Manuela’s travels reunite her with an old friend: The transsexual prostitute Agrado. Played with forceful wit by Antonia San Jaun, Agrado bares her soul and confidence during a stirring monologue in which she addresses an audience about the true meaning of “authentic.” With the poise and grace of an esteemed actress on stage, Agrado brings the crowd to a rousing applause as she boldly concludes, “We must not be cheap in regards to the way we look. Because a woman is more authentic the more she looks like what she has dreamed for herself.” It’s this fearless self-confidence that makes the character’s limited screen time so unforgettable.
Agustina, “Volver” (Blanca Portillo)
Typical of Almodóvar’s female-centric work, his 2007 drama “Volver” is a moving depiction of wounded resiliency, showing the triumph of female community in the face of male aggression. While the film features no shortage of buoyant, voluptuous women, perhaps the most moving and powerful presence comes from Blanca Portillo as the understated cancer patient Agustina. With a nearly shaved head, drab clothes and a serious demeanor, Agustina stands out from Penélope Cruz’s Raimunda and her daughter Paula, but the depiction of her and Raimunda’s lifelong friendship is extremely convincing, funny and poignant. Agustina acts as a surrogate sister to Raimunda and shares her desire to find a matriarchal bond, which is displayed in an unforgettable scene on a talk show. When Raimunda’s deceased mother returns to her home, “Volver” starts out as a ghost story of sorts, but by the film’s end it is Agustina who carries the most ghostly presence due to Portillo’s subtle and lingering performance.
Andrea Caracortada, “Kika” (Victoria Abril)
Three years after turning Victoria Abril into an international star by casting her as the lead in “Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!,” Almodóvar gave the actress the chance to sink her teeth into a sensationalized supporting role in “Kika.” Like many of the director’s dark screwball comedies, “Kika” has a jam-packed plot of jealousy and convoluted love triangles that is way too dense to paraphrase in a single blurb, but at its most basic it’s the story of an anspiring actress who is living with a moody photographer and having an affair with his American stepdad. Carved from the wackiest Versace fashions and taken straight from a ridiculous soap opera subplot, Abril plays the wicked news reporter Andrea Caracortada, who runs a tabloid TV news show so vile (her footage includes that of a rape and a woman being murdered at gunpoint) that it makes TMZ look like child’s play. Caracortada is also viscously obsessed with the writer and stalks him constantly using her TV cameras, and when she catches him in the middle various sexual acts, it leads to a violent showdown that defines the power of an Almodóvar-ian climax. “Kika” was released way back in 1993, but Caracortada couldn’t be more relevant over two decades later. She’s one of the director’s most nastily timeless characters.
Bruna, “I’m So Excited” (Lola Dueñas)
Almodóvar’s 2013 ensemble screwball comedy was only lukewarmly accepted by the critics, but it is held buoyant by its cast of absurd and colorful characters, including a dominatrix, a hitman and a psychic virgin named Bruna. “I’m So Excited,” which takes place largely within the confines of an airplane, is a drug-fueled sex romp that lets the standards of decency unfold disarmingly quick into complete hedonistic, but well-meaning, chaos. While far from a central figure of the film, the aforementioned Bruna, who can see into the future and nearly vomits when she senses death, steals each scene she’s in, and she represents the kind of unbridled feminine character that we have come to expect from the director. Bruna, played brilliantly by long time Almodóvar collaborator Lola Dueñas, predicts an airplane crash, uncovers a hitman and loses her virginity during the course of the film, and she’s the kind of frothy fun character who dares you not to love her.
Juan/Ángel /Zahara, “Bad Education” (Gael García Bernal)
Almodóvar is a master of shifting identities, and no character speaks more boldly to this beloved theme of his than the one played by Gael García Bernal in the dark and mysterious “Bad Education.” The drama centers on a young film director, Enrique (Fele Martínez), who finds his next project when he meets the transexual actor Ángel Andrade (Bernal), who claims he is Enrique’s old boarding school friend Ignacio Rodriguez. Ángel has written a story that pulls from their experiences as children in a Catholic boarding school, and she wants to be cast as the film’s lead, a drag artist and transexual named Zahara. However, Ángel is not really who she says she is, for Enrique soon learns that Ignacio has been dead for several years and that the man posing as Ignacio under Ángel’s alias is Iganio’s younger brother, Juan. That’s just the beginning of the film’s many twists and turns, and Bernal effortlessly creates a fractured personality and walks the line of its demanding rhythms in what is truly a tour-de-force performance. Confused? You should be.
Lena Rivas, “Broken Embraces” (Penélope Cruz)
In the romantic thriller “Broken Embraces,” Almodóvar’s muse Penélope Cruz delivers one of her finest performances as Lena, a film director’s mistress turned actress. The film is largely about obsession, whether it is romantic obsession, obsessive jealousy, or in the case of Lena, the obsession to become a star. Alternately evoking beauties of the silver screen such as Audrey Hepburn and Marilyn Monroe, Lena molds an ebullient and haunted persona. When Lena is caught in the middle of professional and romantic drama, the film veers close to soapy melodrama, but Cruz’s pulsating performance lends it both a dynamism and fragility. Lena’s tragic fate leaves the film’s protagonist blind and incapable of living his life under the same name. Throughout the tale of jealousy and revenge, Almodovar gleefully borrows from Hitchcock and Sirk, ultimately concocting a intoxicating vision of voyeurism complete with an integral performance from Cruz.
Marco Zuluaga, “Talk to Her” (Dario Grandinetti)
For a film whose title suggests feminine drama, “Talk to Her” is decidedly concerned with masculine connection. The men, Benigno (Javier Cámara) and Marco (Darío Grandinetti), are drawn together by an unlikely connection: Both of them are in love with women who have fallen into comas. Marco, a journalist and travel writer, is an intense but often lonely man, whose macho exterior often gives way to a deep loneliness hovering just below the surface. While he attempts to remain impassive, he is never quite as strong as he purports himself to be: Marco will kill a snake, but he will also certainly cry at its loss. After he is drawn to tragedy when his matador-girlfriend is hospitalized, he must learn, with the help of new unlikely friend Benigno, the ways in which he can learn to “talk” to others. A study in male obsession, and a tender exercise in the relationships between the sexes, Marco (and Benigno) are perhaps some of the most sentimental and intimate portraits of men in all of Almodovar’s impressive oeuvre.
Ricky, “Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!” (Antonio Banderas)
Playing almost unsettlingly against type, Antonio Banderas makes a devious turn as mentally unstable Ricky in Almodóvar’s 1990 pitch black romance, “Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!” Banderas’ Ricky gleefully upends his own dashing star persona with a violent kidnapping of former porn star and recovering drug addict, Marina Osorio (Victoria Abril). Singularly concerned with the solicitation of her love, Ricky ties Marina up, promising to keep her confined until she agrees to marry him and bear his children. But handstanding, wig-wearing Ricky elicits no kind of sympathy from Marina until he is shown to her at his most vulnerable. A “love story for the highly strung,” “Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!” is at once a troubling rumination on human desire and a dreamy screwball, providing a fitting showcase for one of Banderas’ wildest characters.
Vera Cruz, “The Skin I Live In” (Alena Anaya)
Like recent films “Under the Skin” and “Ex Machina,” Almodóvar’s “The Skin I Live In” features a lead role that is less a female character and more of a twisted amalgamation of the heterosexual male’s desires. A glossy and perverse modern spin on Frankenstein that somehow avoids devolving into camp, the film stars Antonio Banderas as a mad scientist plastic surgeon who holds captive a live experiment in his enormous Toledo mansion. Left to enjoy the luxuries of the mansion but nothing more, his victim is the beautiful Vera, played by Alena Anaya, whose stitched-together skin is concealed by a flesh-coloured body suit and a face mask straight out of “Eyes Without A Face.” Vera is meant to be the compliant surrogate of the surgeon’s dead wife and even takes her name. As the film ensues, flashbacks reveal the horrifying chain of events that led to Vera’s captivity, providing the groundwork for Vera to resist captivity in mesmerizing fashion. Anaya harnesses the disturbing subject material and claustrophobic environment to deliver an agonizing and resilient performance that lingers for days after the screen cuts to black.