All About My Mother (1999)

(Todo sobre mi madre)

“All About My Mother,” one of Pedro Almodovar’s two or three masterpieces, is on the surface a soap opera at its most melodramatic, an extremely enjoyable, well acted tale in which the mixture of flamboyance and humanity lends the picture greater narrative complexity and emotional power.

Manuela, the protagonist is a single mom working in Madrid, who sees her only son die on his 17th birthday as he runs to seek the autograph of a famous actress. Manuela has taken her son Esteban to see a production of Tennessee Williams’ “A Streetcar Named Desire,” starring Huma Rojo (Marisa Paredes).

All these years, she has been living in lies. She has told Esteban that his father had died before he was born, and now promises to tell him more about his lineage once they return home, which never happens, as Esteban is killed in a car accident.

Manuela also confesses that she once played Stella to his father’s Stanley Kowalski. Huma and her co-star Nina appear and board a taxi, and running after them, Esteban is hit by a car. He dies and Manuela donates his organs.

After the tragedy, she makes efforts to reconcile herself to the disaster and bring together some of the disparate, unfinished business of her life. Honoring Esteban’s last wish to find his father, she returns to her hometown Barcelona to seek out the boy’s father, a transvestite named Lola (Toni Canto), who doesn’t know he has a child.

While looking for Esteban’s father at a pick-up place, Manuela helps a transvestite, La Agrado (Antonia San Juan) being beaten up by a punter. Two decades ago La Agrado lived with Manuela and Esteban’s father, also called Esteban, before he has a sex-change operation and became Lola, the Pioneer. La Agrado tells Manuela she took in the sick Lola only for her to run off with his belongings.

Through Agrado, Manuela meets Rosa, a young nun bound for El Salvador, and becomes personal assistant to Huma Rojo, the stage actress her son admired. She helps Huma manage Nina, her co-star and lover. While Manuela finds a job as assistant, La Agrado decides to change her life and goes to see a nun, Sister Rosa (Penelope Cruz) for counseling. Sister Rosa was impregnated and infected with HIV by Lola, and now Manuela decides to nurse her through her pregnancy, the birth of her child, and eventually her death.

Lola is ravaged by AIDS, and Rosa’s child is born HIV positive. But for every death, there’s a new life. Manuela decides to bring up the child, who is named Esteban. Before Lola dies, Manuela presents her with the newborn Esteban and tells her about his dead son. In the end, the third Esteban succeeds in neutralizing the virus naturally.

Structurally, the story unfolds in a linear mode, using only two flashbacks, both justified narratively. In the first, Manuela recalls the performance of “A Streetcar Named Desire,” which she had seen with her son the night he was killed. The second is when she tells the actress Huma about her son and Huma recalls that fateful night, remembering seeing the boy’s face through the taxi window asking her for an autograph.

As is other Almodovar’s films, this tale is dependent on coincidences and sudden twists and reversals—and revelations of secrets. More than anything else, it’s chance that brings Rosa into contact with Esteban-Lola leading to her having his second child; the first was Manuela’s dead boy. Coincidence also plays role in bringing Manuela into contact with Huma and Nina, an encounter that forever changes all of their lives.

“All About My Mother” qualifies as a glossy, Sirkian melodrama in every sense of the term, including one of the film’s main locale, the theater, a common domain of the genre, though Almodovar’s use of this particular milieu is earnest rather than satirical or campy.

As is known, the young Almodovar was not temperamentally suited to provincial life in Franco’s Spain. After moving to Madrid, he couldn’t afford film school (which had been closed by Franco). He found a job in the Spanish telephone company and saved his salary to buy a Super 8 camera. In the 1970s, he made some short films with the help of friends, and became a central figure of “La Movida,” a pop cultural movement whose elements became the subjects of his films.

Almodovar’s films are highly personal, colorful, and sexually complex, not least because he also writes his scenarios and reflect some of his social background. His flamboyance and moral relativism could be seen as product of Spanish culture life under the repressive regime of General Franco. Almodovar’s early films, including the shocking “Matador” (1986), made him a favorite in the international art-house cinema. His authorial voice represents personal, idiosyncratic themes, such as love and humanity, while revealing the sexual chaos that lies beneath seemingly “normal life.” Refusing to take simplistic moral stances against anything, he is a courageous, non-judgmental director. And while his style is theatrical, it’s also firmly cinematic in its visual energy and ability to change tone and pace from scene to scene, and often within the same scene.

The Oscar-nominated “Women on the Verge of Nervous Breakdown” (Mujeres al borde de un ataque de nervios), in 1988, was Almodovar’s best and also most popular work until “All About My Mother,” a decade later.

Cast

Manuela (Cecilia Roth)
Huma Rojo (Marisa Paredes)
Nina (Candela Pena)
La Agrado (Antonia San Juan)
Sister Rosa (Penelope Cruz)
Rosa’s Mother (Rosa Maria Sarda)
Rosa’s Father (Fernando Fernan Gomez)
Lola (Toni Canto)
Esteban (Eloy Azorin)

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