Iris Out: Pedro Almodovar’s “What Have I Done to Deserve This?”

Lauren Nokes

In what is partly an attempt to raise awareness about the Latin American and Spanish Film Festival that will take place on campus from May 9 to May 13, I’m reviewing a film that I first watched in my Spanish Civilization and Culture class which has fascinated me ever since.

“¿Qué he hecho yo para merecer esto”? (“What Have I Done to Deserve This?”)is a 1984 film born out of the twisted and clever imagination of Spanish director Pedro Almodóvar. The film bears the unmistakable characteristics of Almodóvar’s other works: dark and often perverse humor, clever allusions and riffing on genre, themes of desire and family.

The film follows Gloria, a housewife and cleaning lady addicted to No-Doze pills whose flat effect and domesticity only partially hide a desperate hysteria. While Gloria tries to simultaneously care for her family and make enough money to support them, her husband Antonio attempts to control every aspect of her life, wanting her to be a perfect, traditional Spanish wife.

She must also deal with her two sons and her mother-in-law: one son sells drugs, the younger son sleeps with older men, and her mother-in-law is a diabetic who won’t stop eating cake.

You may imagine the possible unrelieved misery of a film about such an unhappy and dysfunctional family. However, in typical Almodóvar fashion, dark humor makes the awful situations hilarious.

The film forces viewers to face the absurdities of modern life with laughter, especially the absurdities of post-Franco Spain: lack of opportunity, antiquated social conventions, and the disintegration of the old social order.

One of my favorite scenes from the movie is when Antonio’s mother sings along with comically earnest gusto to an old song on the television about a man who throws aside a prostitute he had paid, declaring “I don’t love you; you don’t love me,” while her grandson Toni looks on skeptically; meanwhile, in the nearby bedroom, Gloria and Antonio have passionless sex that leaves Gloria unsatisfied and leaves the viewer to reflect on how money and bitterness have defined their relationship.

You can see the grandmother as the personification of the old Spain and Toni as the personification of the new, with Antonio and Gloria caught in the middle. The scene is humorous and sad, symbolic and personal.

The film functions on many levels, rewarding multiple viewings. You can watch purely for the story and the humor, but you may also watch for what Almodóvar says about Spain, female desire, the effects of modernization and more.

It’s rich in symbolism and allusion. Almodóvar even borrows from the Latin American style of magical realism in aspects of his film, taking a whimsical turn from the grim realities of Gloria’s life.

If the work of Almodóvar intrigues you, you should watch his film “The Skin I Live In” at the Warch Cinema Center at 6 p.m. as well as checking out the other films in the festival.

Additionally, on May 11 Paul Julian Smith will give a lecture titled “Almodóvar’s Women.” A whole new world of fascinating Spanish-language film awaits you this May — be sure not to miss out!