Inscrutable Human Document : Pedro Almodóvar’s Talk to Her

Directed by Pedro Almodovar, 2002


Pedro Almodóvar’s filmic cosmos revels in the free democracy of Spain resuscitating from an authoritarian ‘Francoism ‘ through the Civil War (1978), where cultural trends nationalized by Francoist regime namely bull fighting and flamenco are fused with the emerging subcultures of pop, drag, television soaps, showbiz and music reactionary to the repression of rock. The framework of a conventional plot generates themes of illicit love, same-sex desire ,adultery and murder, deviant sexual behavior ranging from necrophilia to BDSM and nymphomania in a distinctly ‘carnivalesque’ fervor. The perils of transgression are never completely surpassed and much has to be closeted. But within the intimacy of secrets the characters nurture, lurks the survivor’s instinct that tends towards a passionate expression rather than a tragic submission. Talk to Her released in 2002 can be deemed a departure from Almodóvar’s usual loud melodrama to flout conventions and offers a more subdued take on two men’s devotion in privacy to women in PVS.

Benigno Martin (Javier Cámara), the male nurse entrusted to care for the dancer Alicia (Leonor Watling), daughter of a psychiatrist Dr. Roncero who has been in coma for four years, has passed a ‘special’ childhood and adolescence in tending to his sick mother for fifteen years. In the course of a mock couch therapy session that Beningo subjects himself to in Alicia’s father’s chamber on a visit to see Alicia, we learn of his correspondence courses in aesthetics, make-up and hairdressing- skills he can exercise to his best possibility in nursing a brain-dead woman. The logic of gendered professions renders Beningo a social anomaly in his role of a caregiver. Inscribed in this inversion is the temptation towards a Freudian psychoanalysis of his attachment to the mother in its transposition on Alicia. In typical Almodóvarian tongue-in-cheek humour, Benigno shelves Alicia’s father’s doubts regarding the nature of his attachment to Alicia by agreeing to his assumptions of him as a homosexual and thus, harps on the popular imagination that would stereotypically attribute his traits to being gender-queer. His preoccupation with Alicia’s body also veers towards a child’s play with a doll in an abatement of the loneliness he diagnoses himself with in Dr. Roncero’s chamber. Almodovar for the most part of the film, only hints at the dubiousness inherent in Benigno’s excessive scrubbing, massaging and oiling of Alicia’s body- the innocence endowed on Benigno as a benefit of doubt is mostly rendered through the camera’s voyeuristic yet clinical and devotional interest on the body of the female nude that is never fully eroticized. Camara’s impeccable performance conveyed through his continual conversational engagement with the unconscious Alicia and his diligence in pursuing her interests like watching silent films retains our faith in his naiveté.

The intimacy of Benigno’s devotion extends to Marco (Darío Grandinetti) for the erstwhile bullfighter, Lydia Gonzalez (Rosario Flores), also victim of PVS, but there’s a marked difference in attitude. Benigno’s acute sense of joy inherent in the beauty of tragedy becomes evident in his act of recounting his encounter with Marco in a dance-theatre performance of Pina Bausch introduced in the opening of the film to Alicia: “He (Marco) cried with emotion lots of times. I don’t understand was beautiful!” While both men are helpless in their infinite wait, Marco recedes to despondency in the hopelessness of Lydia’s revival while Benigno believes in a miraculous recovery without banking on miracles. The shrine in Lydia’s ward constituting of a congregation of Christ’s images focused on a couple of times hints at the hope surprisingly pervading the Godlessness of Alicia’s room.

The purity of Benigno’s intention is blurred through the narrating of a silent short-film namely “Shrinked Lover” within the film. Benigno’s loss of naiveté, as later revealed by a medical diagnosis of Alicia’s pregnancy, is conveyed through the bathos of the love story in the short-film teeming with sexual energy- a classic Almodovarian strategy of dimming grimness through comedy. Our moral bafflement and hesitation in dismissing Benigno as a pervert or sick bastard is best reflected in the humanly compassionate response of his associate nurse, Rosa in her refusal to visit Benigno in prison due to her disagreement with his unmistakable crime coupled with a sincere plea to Marco to help Benigno.
Almodovar takes a dig at the priests through Marco who comments on their degradation into perpetrating sexual crimes like raping locals and turning into pedophiles, themes he explores in his other films. The bull slays Lydia in the ring rendering her comatose- an incident through which Almodovar hints at the perils and critiques bullfighting , a sport exoticized within nationalist discourses of Francoist Spain.

The absolute responsibility in the face of the other’s non-response and non-rapport is a relation Marco fails at, unable to “talk to her”, but which Benigno champions, albeit through delusions. His act of suicide marks a more pointed failure in his incompatibility with reality but the resuscitation of Alicia at the close of the film when she returns to normal life does justice to the word ‘champions’, even if the intentionality is suspect and he is jailed on the clear grounds of rape. Marco has no delusions about the perversion of Benigno’s act, bordering on necrophilia, but he sympathizes with him, perhaps through a discernment akin to Arendt’s logic of forgiving “what is done.. for the sake of who did it”. Katarina, Alicia’s dance teacher’s words near the close of the movie -“I am a dancing teacher and nothing is simple”- provides a cue for the irreducibility and warns us against the simplification of Almodóvar’s film(s) that form a complex human document. The film ends with another silent theatrical dance performance akin to the one that opens it in which the moment of seduction and youthful love is romanticized and immortalized in a hopeful vein which is reminiscent of Benigno.

– Barnamala Roy


“Existence is Resistance”: A Review of Bidisha’s Beyond the Wall: Writing a Path through Palestine

Beyond the Wall: Writing a path through Palestine by Bidisha, published by Seagull, 2012

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Where do the formative years of your childhood lead to when you are forced to grow up inside a walled ghetto of just eight square kilometres? How does it feel when you know that you are actually living in the Orwellian dystopia with a “Big Brother” constantly watching you? How do you negotiate with a life whose rules and regulations are under military control and keep changing arbitrarily so as to thwart any stable expectations? What happens when your very survival becomes an occupation? Bidisha’s Beyond the Wall: Writing a Path through Palestine seeks to answer such questions. Written during and immediately after her visit to the Palestine Festival of Literature in 2011, Beyond the Wall reveals to the world the voices of the Palestinian people calling out to demand self-respect and a more humane condition of living. The political conflict between Israel and Palestine and the causes of the tensions in the region are not the subjects of Bidisha’s book. The subjects of her book are the ordinary people dwelling in those contested areas, their daily encounter with Kafkaesque regulations and endless check-point queues, their desperate fights for dignity and freedom and their day-to-day struggle to stay alive. Her non-fictional account of the pathos and plight of the Palestinians is an echo of other writings of the genre such as Urvashi Butalia’s The Other Side of Silence that try to amplify the suppressed voices of the oppressed.

Bidisha’s moving portrayal takes us into different parts of Palestine and with every new space the readers are acquainted with more horrific details of Palestinian life. Palestine is a place where any act of reading is unapproved of by the authorities who come down on anything that is cultural. It is a place where social activists have to go through “countless spurious obstructions” to smuggle books into Palestine (Beyond 18) and the children of Hebron have to pass numerous harassing checkpoints everyday on their way to school which often delays them enough to complete the day’s lesson “sitting on cement blocks or in a circle on the ground with their schoolbooks open on their laps” (Beyond 80). Hampering education or making its access extremely difficult is a strategic move on the part of the Israeli authorities to strike a blow at the foundation of a community that has already been displaced and is living its life in exile. Life for the majority of the Palestinians is confined to various camps: camps which are made of concrete family dwellings stacked on top of one another divided by less than a metre and with just one room sanctioned to each family. Life is far worse and animalistic in Bethlehem and in the settlements of Hebron. Bethlehem is a walled ghetto surrounded by walls on three sides which are manned by soldiers and watchtowers. The wall is built immediately after the last house of the city ends so as to prevent any expansion of the city. The children who grow up imprisoned within a wall and under the watchful eyes of the military strive not to internalise that wall. The situation in Bethlehem and the West Bank is nothing short of an apartheid system where the smooth roads are preserved exclusively for the Israeli settlers to avoid Palestinian cities, leaving behind a road full of sewage for the use of the Palestinians. The settlements of Hebron, on the other hand, have been built to break the Palestinian society apart. The settlements have no access to market, means of livelihood, places of worship and even a cemetery. The settlers who have occupied Hebron’s buildings and built them above and around the low market streets ensure that the Palestinians below experience an inhumanly filthy living condition by throwing rubbish down onto their heads, sometimes faeces and urine.

While Bidisha exposes the extent to which living is made difficult for the Palestinians, the feat of her narrative lies in making the voices from beyond the wall heard. These voices, though continually crushed and subjugated, refuse to be silenced. The Palestinians know that it is only by existing they can resist the attempts of the Israeli authorities to exterminate a community. Their struggle is not one to merely stay alive, but living a life on their own terms, a life where they are not puppets in the hands of the dictatorial rulers. So while on one hand the authorities obliterate the Arabic language on all road signs to symbolically snatch away the land of Palestine from the Arabs, the Palestinians organise a Literature Festival to construct a culture of their own; the social activists at various camps such as the Balata Refugee Camp work on restoring education and cultural events to reconstruct a heritage of Palestine from the debris that the state is reduced to. While every attempt is made to erase the state from university assignments by naming literature courses as “Writing Israel” (Beyond 34; emphasis added) where students are asked to write about how they came to Israel, one student dares to write instead about how Israel came to her. In spite of the repeated “assassination of childhood” (Beyond 45), the children refuse to assassinate their hopes for a better tomorrow. Young as they are, these children are perceptive, conscious sufferers, sensitive to their own pain and lack of freedom, and so their persistent hope that “tomorrow is better than today” (Beyond 43) becomes a form of resisting the trauma of losing their “songs of innocence”. The constant lying by the Palestinians to the military officials about details of their life is again an endeavour on their part to restrain the authorities from controlling their life. Isolated as they are from the mainstream society to which they are denied any access, the residents of the settlements transform their neighbours into family, so as to respond to all authorial measures of division with a larger communal unification.

The Palestinians are subjugated by nihilism, chaos and anarchy in the name of control. They are made to feel that their houses are not their homes and can be occupied, violated or demolished any time so that they do not feel safe even on their own beds. They are monitored and are put behind walls to obstruct their views. The appearance of their cities are changed with the introduction of new elements – walls, roads, tanks, watchtowers, concrete blocks – which are bigger and on higher grounds so as to intimidate them and make them shrink under the constant watchful gaze of the powerful other. And yet, the Palestinians wage a daily war against all these to retain their identity. Their voices could be heard through the passages of hope the little children write in their writing classes; through the lies they feed the military to refuse them from sneaking into their personal life; through setting up homes in the camps when their houses are burnt down. Bidisha’s narrative records these voices from beyond the wall, voices which are not of victimisation, but of resistance.

-Deblina Hazra

deblina hazra