Masterpieces of Wolrd Cinema: All About My Mother–Part Two

More than other features, this film deals with the binary oppositions of procreation and death, creativity and stagnation, individual and community, self-sacrifice and social redemption, love and loneliness. As in most Almodovar’s films, for every death, there’s new life. Esteban’s heart beats within another man. Lola transmits a fetal virus to Rosa, but her baby miraculously recovers. Esteban never sees the photo of his father, but his father (Lola) sees the photos of his dead son (by Manuela) and learns of the existence of his another son (by Rosa).

Structurally, unlike “Live Flesh,” which was circular, the story unfolds in a linear mode, using only a few flashbacks. In the first, Manuela recalls the performance of “A Streetcar Named Desire,” which she had seen with her son on the night he was killed. The second and third flashbacks are inserted when Manuela tells Huma about her son, and Huma recalls vividly that rainy night, when she got a glimpse of the boy’s face through the taxi’s rear window.

According to Almodovar’s worldview, in the end, the show, just like life itself, must go on. The “chick with dick,” La Agrado, takes on the stage after Huma’s appearance is cancelled; Huma and Nina are both hospitalized. Proving that any woman has some acting skills, the likable La Agrado gives the audience a choice to leave or to stay, and several leave. Performing his/her own life story as a transsexual endowed with both male and female parts, La Agrado takes equal pride in her natural big penis (the object of desire of most males and females in the film) and big fake breasts. “A woman is authentic only in so far as she resembles her dream of herself,” La Agrado proudly exclaims. Indeed, each of his/her body parts has a price in the market place, except for her penis, which is a vital part for procreation as well as an object of pleasure.

“All About My Mother” concludes with a specifically reference to Spain’s unique culture, showing Huma resuming her real love and calling, stage work, She is now rehearsing the part of the rigid matriarch in Garcia Lorca’s best-known play, “Blood Wedding.”

Despite the occurrence of tragic events, humor prevails in the most devastating situations, as when Sister Rosa suddenly proclaims, “Prada is perfect for nuns,” or when La Agrado performs on stage, describing each of her organs. Unity is brought to the narrative by a single character, the dying transvestite Lola who has affected and/or infected all of the women, albeit in different ways. There is a price to be paid, however, and before dying, Lola sums up her life simply and succinctly: “I was always excessive, and now I am very tired.”

Almodovar brings together his diverse characters in his masterful two-shots. In the first act, mother and son are almost always in the same frame, whether watching Bette Davis on TV, or watching Huma performing on stage. Making a special dinner for her son on the night before his birthday, Manuela is in the kitchen, rushed by Esteban to the living room as “All About Eve” is about to begin playing on their TV screen. They always change titles for the worse, Esteban complains. In Spanish, the movie is retitled “Eve Unveiled” (“Eve Desnuda,” which literally translates into Naked Eve, a la Goya’s painting, “Maya Desnuda”) .

Eagerly waiting for midnight to give Esteban his birthday present, Manuela enters into her son’s room with a most personal gift, Truman Capote’s book. Reduced to childhood, when she used to tuck him in bed, Esteban asks his mom to read aloud, which she does. Densely self-referential, “All About My Mother” is allusive to works by other directors and playwrights. Manuela is reading loud to her son from Truman Capote’s book, “When God hands you gift, he also hands you a whip, and the whip is intended solely for self-flagellation.” Capote’s often-quoted line becomes a running motif of Almodovar’s text.

Manuela also shares the screen with each of the characters, Huma, Rosa, La Agrado, even the initially antagonistic Rosa’s mother and Nina. But significantly, Manuela doesn’t share the same space in the crucial reunion with her ex-husband. Almodovar cuts sharply between the two, who lost touch decades ago and could never occupy the same universe again. With Esteban’s imminent death, Manuela is spared of taking care of yet another individual, but if needed to, she would have.

On the one hand, “All About My Mother” is a glossy, stylized melodrama, modeled partly on Douglas Sirk’s visual splendor, epitomized in “All That Heaven Allows,” ”Written on the Wind,” and “Imitation of Life,” all 1950s Hollywood films for which Almodovar has professed admiration. However, unlike the detached and ironic tone of Sirk’s works, the tone of Almodovar’s film is lyrical, warm, meditative, and decidedly non-ironic and non-cynical.

Several scenes are set in the theater, a common domain of the melodramatic genre, and Almodovar’s use of this particular milieu is strategic. The most crucial scenes take place backstage, in the dressing rooms, and they are played for earnest, rather than for satirical or just plot points, as is the case of the actress (Lora) Lana Turner plays in Sirk’s 1959 “Imitation of Life,” a title that Almodovar would never use, because for him, there’s no such thing.

Almodovar also cites his own pictures. Like “The Flower of My Secret,” this movie centers on one woman’s grief, Manuela’s loss of her only son whom she had raised alone. The movie’s theater scenes of “A Streetcar Named Desire,” include the one in which Blanche DuBois is carried out of Kowalski’s house after recycling the legendary line, “I’ve always depended on the kindness of strangers.” These allusions to life, onstage and off, recall those of Cocteau’s monologue, “The Human Voice,” which Roberto Rossellini had made with the venerable Anna Magnani, in Almodovar’s film, “Law of Desire.”

At one point of another, each of the female protagonists is dependent on the kindness of a female stranger, to borrow again from Williams’ play. This is manifest in the random encounters, accidental meetings, spontaneous friendships, and unexpected needs that are ultimately met by and through female camaraderie.

The dubbed inserts of Bette Davis-Celeste Holme sequence from the 1950 seminal Oscar-winning “All About Eve” parallel the Joan Crawford-Sterling Hayden clips from “Johnny Guitar” in Almodovar’s “Women on the Verge of Nervous Breakdown.” However, unlike the treacherous and greedy Eve Harrington in “All About Eve,” Manuela is a good-hearted, generous to a fault femme who would never betray or deny the needs of another woman. Unlike Blanche DuBois in “A Streetcar Named Desire,” Almodovar’s heroines may slip and “lose it” for a while, but they never really descend into madness (or commit suicide), holding onto their sanity to the bitter end with stoicism and humor.

Stylistically, too, there are references to and parallels between “All About My Mother” and other Almodovar pictures. La Agrado’s Channel suit matches Victoria Abril’s in “High Heels,” and her defiant claim, “I am authentic” recalls the claim made by Rossy de Palma’s lesbian maid in “Kika.” Showing remarkable facility in constructing seamless and cohesive narratives, Almodovar is equally at ease with Prada and Truman Capote, Tennessee Williams and Lorca. He fuses pop culture and high culture, stylized aesthetics and genuine feeling, fake silicone breasts and true sentiments, on stage performance and off stage authenticity.

In the press notes, Almodovar notes: “My initial idea was to make a film about the acting abilities of certain people who aren’t actors. As a child, I remember seeing this quality among the women in my family. They pretended much better than the men. Through their lies, they were able to avoid more than one tragedy.” Almodovar dedicates the movie to “Bette Davis, Gena Rowlands, Romy Schneider, and all the actresses who played actresses.” Through Manuela, who had once performed in “A Streetcar Named Desire,” opposite her then husband, and in the course of the film becomes an understudy (by necessity, not by design or calculation), Almodovar perceives her as a symbolic representation of “the actress” that exists in every woman and all women, including those in his own family life. Ultimately, “All About My Mother” is Almodovar’s love poem to his own mother.