, 101 min, 1999
Director: Pedro Almodóvar
Writer: Pedro Almodóvar
Stars: Cecilia Roth, Marisa Paredes, Candela Peña
Pedro Almodovar’s All About My Mother exists in a world of mothers, of actresses, of daughters and of nurses and nuns. Men are virtually non-existent phenomena – whether they are the absentee father who has actually become a woman, or the transgender prostitute who is age-old friends with the female heroine, or the deceased son who sets our heroine about on her journey to find his aforementioned absentee father. Women are the sole driving force of this narrative. Almodovar loves them, and commits himself in his work to showcase after showcase for actresses to prove their talents.
This film is blessed with a wonderful actress in Cecilia Roth, who plays Manuela, the Registered Nurse and mother of Esteban (Eloy Azorin), an aspiring young writer in Madrid. Manuela works part-time as an actress in hospital videos designed to instruct doctors how to deal with the grief of their patients’ loved ones. On the rainy evening of Esteban’s birthday, Manuela takes him to a stage production of A Streetcar Named Desire. The production stars Huma Rojo (Marisa Paredes), the aging, fiery redhead whose behind-the-scenes romance with co-star Nina (Candela Pena), a not-so-closeted heroin addict portraying Stella in the production, is on the rocks. When Esteban runs through the pouring rain, pursuing Huma’s car to obtain an autograph, he is struck by a car and Manuela’s life is forever changed. Losing her son, she travels back to Barcelona to find his father. Along the way she reconnects with Agrado (Antonia San Juan), a transgender prostitute she was friends with years ago; becomes caregiver to an AIDS-afflicted young nun named Sister Rosa (Penelope Cruz); and through a stunning confluence of coincidence, finds herself employment – however briefly – as Huma’s assistant and even takes over for Nina’s portrayal of Stella in a pinch.
Almodovar’s entire oeuvre embraces melodrama joyously, escalating from the tradition of Spanish-language soap opera, as well as 50s melodramas like the work of Douglas Sirk (Written on the Wind, All That Heaven Allows, Imitation of Life) and 70s melodramas like those of Rainer Werner Fassbinder (Fox and His Friends, Ali: Fear Eats the Soul, The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant). Shamelessly sailing over the top, doubling back and occasionally even journeying right over the top yet again, Almodovar’s films manage to find the humanity in the seamy side of life, the realism in high-strung, heavily animated and colorful characters, and the humor in situations that could and, perhaps, should be positively tear-inducing. The world itself, too, is highly-stylized, here astonishingly portrayed through elaborate and gorgeous CinemaScope camerawork and eye-popping, luridly colorful lighting (a palette of deep aqua blues, lime greens, saccharine yellows and passionately bloody reds permeates virtually every frame from beginning to end). It is a mise-en-scene well-suited to a story and world like Almodovar’s.
With All About My Mother, Almodovar tackles his most sincere-seeming, least farcical subject matter to date with a remarkable – if precarious – balance between humor and pathos. It is a gamble which pays off in spades. Manuela’s story is borderline tragic, made more tragic by her involvement with the ill-fated Sister Rosa, the painfully misguided Nina, the tough but lovelorn Huma, the hilarious but surprisingly self-sufficient Agrado, and everything in their periphery. Poor Manuela is never given a break. She is constant caregiver to everyone and everything in her orbit. Even in the wake of Esteban’s death, she is still being a mother – including, finally, to the orphaned son of Sister Rosa and Lola (Esteban’s transvestite prostitute father who finally shows up in the end).
The title, referenced in the opening scene somewhat self-reflexively, translates as Todo Sobre Mi Madre, not unlike All About Eve, another very stagey 50s melodrama that deals with roles and ordinary people stepping into them – inside and outside of the acting world. Appropriate since, in the end, this is a film as much about production and performance as anything else. Whether it be the stage productions that Huma, Nina, Agrado and Manuela all take part in to one degree or another or the hospital videos Manuela performs in designed to help with grief – ironically and, perhaps, cruelly foreshadowing her son’s tragic end – or even simply the surrogacy of roles stepped into by Manuela – sister, mother, nurse: It’s all the same.
Likewise, this film seems to be as concerned with the artifice of filmmaking and stage production as with anything else. While involving us in its story, we are nevertheless treated to beautiful but oddly self-conscious camera angles like those from the POV of a piece of paper as a pen writes on it; the bizarre mixture of slow-motion and swirling, tilting camera movement from the POV of Esteban as he’s struck by the car while Manuela looks on; and even a high Dutch angle (tilt shot) over the Whore’s roundabout in Barcelona when Manuela comes looking for Lola and instead first reunites with Agrado – it plays to me like homage to a Fellini film I once saw – was it Amarcord, Roma or La Dolce Vita?
Even the final implications of the film seem to suggest that these characters we’ve come to love and concern ourselves so deeply with ultimately are playing roles. Hence, the director of the latest stage production comes over and tells Huma how to portray a grieving mother – as if it is required that Almodovar himself (a man) come in to guide the grief and performance of women. What are we to make of this? Almodovar only knows.