The Depiction of Disability in Almodóvar’s Live Flesh (Parts Three and Four)

Click here to read part one:

Click here to read part two:

Part Three: Reflection

“Like all my other films, Live Flesh is not easy to classify in terms of genre. All I know is that it is the most disquieting film I have made up to now, and the one that has caused the most unease. It is not a thriller, not a cop film, though there are policemen and gunshot and guilty men who are innocent. It is not a twilight western, although I would like to shoot one someday. It isn’t an erotic film either, although there are various explicit sex scenes, natural and didactic, and the story takes place in the field of bare carnal desire. Live Flesh is an intense drama, baroque and sensual that partakes both of the thriller and classic tragedies.” Pedro Almodóvar on Carne trémula(Live Flesh) (Duncan 2017)

Portrayals of the Body by Almodóvar

Almodóvar, throughout his long career, has encouraged audiences to reconsider perfection and in fact, more often portrays the imperfect, going against the Hollywood standards of beauty. However, the actor playing Victor certainly conforms while the film embraces a typical storytelling troupe seen on stage and on film of the ordinary man whose life is turned around after encountering a femme fatale (think of the opera, Carmen). Almodóvar has also portrayed the human body in varied appearances that include the abused, the ill, the dead, and the disabled. He has explored disability in several films since Carne trémula(Live Flesh). Hable con ella (Talk to Her) follows two men who form an extraordinary friendship as they care for the two women they love who are both in comas which resulted from accidents. In Los abrazos rotos (Broken Embraces), we have a film director who loses his sight in a car accident. In Dolor y gloria (Pain and Glory), Almodóvar’s most biographical film, we have an ageing film director who is suffering from dysphagia and is rapidly declining physically and emotionally (interestingly, Almodóvar recently revealed that he is losing his hearing). While all the plots vary greatly for these films, the one thing they all have in common is that the characters became disabled. This is consistent with Franco’s mindset for the Jurisdiction of Labor legislation where safety regulations were aimed at preventing and addressing disability via workplace accidents, with no laws helping those born disabled. When I first saw the film in 1998, I found it to be a positive portrayal of a former police officer who is now an independent paraplegic and navigates the world with specially equipped cars and sexual inventiveness. My experienced eyes see it differently now because in the end Almodóvar falls into the same worn-out stereotypes of the disabled as incomplete human beings, especially when it comes to sexuality. Almodóvar notes: “When Elena spends the night screwing with Victor, at the end she caresses his legs, not his genitals, because what she misses most with her paralytic husband are his legs, full of life.” (Duncan 2017)

Catholic Guilt

Most of the Spanish population is Catholic. The Catholic Church’s close alliance with Franco caused many Catholics to be skeptical of the clergy and Almodóvar most notably explores this in La mala educación (Bad Education). The presence of Catholicism in Spain is culturally pervasive, and you see it in Almodóvar’s work. Guilt, particularly around sexuality, is a concept commonly associated with Catholics. (McMahon 2006) Some of Almodóvar’s portrayals of disability almost act like a religious reparation for sexual transgressions—the reverse of cure narratives and congruent with the religious model of disability, which views disability as a punishment inflicted upon an individual or family by God because of sin. In Los abrazos rotos (Broken Embraces), the film director who loses his sight in a car accident was committing an infidelity not unlike David and Clara in Carne trémula(Live Flesh). Was David punished for his sins? Was Elena atoning for her part in David’s disability? Is her devotion to charity part of this? Did Sancho and Clara die to atone for their respective sins? Why wasn’t Victor punished for sleeping with a married woman? Was it because he paid it forward via the time served in prison for a crime he didn’t commit? And while the film ends with Victor and Elena together, could she be repeating a cycle of atonement?

Part four: Disability in Spain today

Spain, in 2007, ratified the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities which requires governments to ensure that the physical environment, public services and most notably housing, are equally accessible to people with disabilities. (United Nations 2019) Spain passed a law in 2013 based on the premise that universal accessibility helps guarantee equal opportunities and treatment for people with disabilities. This legislation made homeowner associations responsible for ensuring their buildings are accessible to all people and set December 2017 as the deadline to eliminate architectural barriers. (Juridicas 2013) However, a March 2018 report by the UNESCO Chair on Housing and the Fundación Mutua de Propietarios found that only 0.6 percent of Spain’s 9.8 million residential buildings meet accessibility standards for those with physical disabilities. (UNESCO 2018)

The Confederación Española de Personas con Discapacidad Física y Orgánica (Spanish Confederation of People with Physical and Organic Disabilities) reported in 2019 that 100,000 people with physical disabilities in Spain remain trapped in their homes: of the 2.5 million people with physical disabilities living in Spain more than 1.8 million of them need help to be able to leave their homes. (Orgánica 2019) That same year the UN Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities ( similarly criticized Spain noting that “measures taken to ensure universal accessibility, particularly for private buildings, have been insufficient or ineffective.” It recommended the government take “all legislative and budgetary measures” necessary to fix the problem. This same report also noted that women with disabilities face multiple forms of discrimination due to their gender and disabilities and may also be at risk of gender-based violence and that public policies on disability and gender equality do not include measures to combat multiple and intersectional discrimination against women with disabilities. (United Nations 2019)

iHuman, a blog from the University of Sheffield that explores Covid, noted in 2020 two cases that looked at discrimination against the disabled in Spain (“Dis/ableism and the COVID-19 crisis: A partial view from Spain”). The first looked at barber shops, which were initially treated as essential services at the beginning of the lockdown and that this was received with some rage among many non-disabled people. The government explained that some people need assistance to maintain their basic hygiene. One politician (Isabel Díaz Ayuso, President of the Madrid region) declared, “I must protect them above all (…) I would rather they have dirty hair, and they stay healthy.” As the blog noted these people demonstrated, “…an incapacity to see beyond the independent, able-bodied…” The complaints were so laced with vitriol that the government switched gears and allowed hairdressing as an in-home service at the discretion of the provider. Worse than the haircuts, are some of the comments that autistic people and their parents have been hearing from balconies and windows in their neighborhoods, even after the Spanish government legally recognized their right to be in the street during the Covid lockdown: “Irresponsible! You put all of us in danger! Shame on you! Die!” The number of reported cases of harassment have driven Autismo España to create a platform to report discrimination. Some families have taken to wearing blue armbands to avoid being booed and insulted by neighbors for being outside. However, some organizations have accurately noted that the armband is a label that might also cause stigmatization. As iHuman notes:

“The demonisation of disabled people, the criminalisation of dependence and disability hate speech constitute serious dangers during the pandemic. Disabled people’s rights could be threatened by reactionary attitudes towards the basic practices they need to live liveable lives, including therapeutic walks among others. Being discriminated during the pandemic might represent a double nightmare to disabled people. We must do better.”

Indeed. We must do better.

Works Cited

Antonio, Sánchez Cazorla. 2010. “The Politics of Fear.” In Fear and Progress Ordinary Lives in Franco’s Spain, 1939-1975, by Sánchez Cazorla Antonio, 18-49. Chichester: Wiley-Blackwell.

Bogdan, Robert, and Taylor, Steven. 1987. “Toward a Sociology of Acceptance: The Other Side of the Study of Deviance.” Social Policy 34-39.

Del Cura, Mercedes, and José Martínez-Pérez. 2021. ““Childhood, Disability and Vocational Training in Franco’s Spain during the 1950s and Early 1960s.”.” History of Education Review 50 (2): 241–57.

Duncan, Paul. 2017. The Pedro Almodóvar Archives. Köln: Taschen.

I Wanna Grow Blog. 2018. Cuantas plantas de maría puedo tener legalmente en España. July 5.

Juridicas, Noticias. 2013. Real Decreto Legislativo 1/2013, de 29 de noviembre, por el que se aprueba el Texto Refundido de la Ley General de derechos de las personas con discapacidad y de su inclusión social. November 29.

Malaga, Sociedad Federada Personas de. n.d. Nuestra Historia.

Martínez-Pérez, José. 2017. “Work, Disability and Social Control: Occupational Medicine and Political Intervention in Franco’s Spain (1938-1965).” “Work, Disability and Social Control: Occupational Medicine and Political Intervention in Franco’s Spain (1938-1965).” 28 (4): 805-24.

McMahon, Christopher. 2006. “Fecundity and Almodóvar? Sexual Ethics and the Specter of Catholicism Catholicism.” Journal of Religion & Film 10 (2).

Newtral. 2019. Esto con Franco no pasaba: bulos sobre la dictadura. November 20.

Orgánica, Confederación Española de Personas con Discapacidad Física y. 2019. Confederación Española de Personas con Discapacidad Física y Orgánica. June 12.

Reverte, Jorge M. 2010. “La Lista De Franco Para El Holocausto.” El País, June 20.

Seguin, Christopher Blow & Denis. 2019. The Dictator’s Playbook: Francisco Franco. Directed by Mark Stevenson. Produced by David, Kate Harrison, Michael Rosenfeld, and Matt Boo Brady.

Sotinel, Thomas. 2010. Masters of Cinema: Pedro Almodóvar. Paris: Phaidon Press.

UNESCO, Fundación Mutua de Propietarios. 2018. La accesibilidad de las viviendas en España. Madrid: Fundación Mutua de Propietarios / UNESCO.

United Nations. 2019. Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. New York: United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.

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