Masterpieces of World Cinema: All About My Mother–Part One

“All About My Mother,” my personal favorite of Almodovar’s films, is one of his four or five acknowledged masterpieces, and one of his most commercially profitable films. The 1999 film not only celebrates women but analyzes them intimately as performers, on stage and off.

It is dedicated to all the actresses who have played actresses on stage or in film. The protagonist, Manuela, had once performed in “A Streetcar Named Desire,” opposite her then husband (later a transsexual). In the course of the film, she becomes an understudy–by necessity, not by design or calculation. Manuela represents the actress in all women, including the women in his personal life. Almodovar noted: “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.”

A summation work, “All About My Mother” (“Todo sobre mi madre”) is a fiercely emotional yet unsentimental movie, which represents a thematic, visual, and tonal synthesis of his entire work. It is the first Almodovar film to be shown at the prestigious Cannes Film Festival, where most of his works would premiere in the future. For this accomplished film, he won the Cannes Best Director Award, though many critics thought he should have won the Palme d’Ór. “All About My Mother” was the second Almodovar picture to be nominated for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar, and his first movie to win the Oscar.

Arguably his warmest and most enjoyable film, “All About My Mother” represents a loving tribute to women in their various physical shapes, biological ages, social classes, and professions. On the surface a woman’s melodrama, it covers the entire range of emotions: loss, grief, reconciliation, camaraderie, and redemption by depicting a circle of women who confront various ills—disease (AIDS), abandonment by husbands and lovers, old age and dementia, unplanned pregnancy, and death–with resilient, almost stoical approach.

Well-balanced, the film mixes elements of comedy and drama, sentiment and humanity in equal measure, and they are contained in a multi-layered narrative of extraordinary cohesiveness and emotional power. If the plot is too melodramatic and the setting too theatrical, the characters and performances are decidedly not—they are grounded in realistic contexts. There is no surface glamour, despite the theatricality. Moreover, the close-ups of the characters—the mother-nurse Manueala, the aging diva Huma, the terminally-ill nun Rosa, Rosa’s blind father and distressed mother, the dying transsexual, the drug-addict lesbian–are ravaged and wrinkled faces of women who have gone through painful experiences in their lives.

The opening credits appear and dissolve as the camera pans slowly over medical objects, drips and dials in the primary colors of blue, red, and yellow, colors that will serve as the film’s consistent visual codes, again signaling issues of life and death, birth and demise.

The tale is dominated by women—many women. The heroine, Manuela (Cecilia Roth, the Argentinean actress who had starred in Almodovar’s “Labyrinth of Passion.”), is a single mom living in Madrid with her only son, Esteban (Eloy Azorin). On his seventeenth birthday, Manuela takes Esteban to see a production of Tennessee Williams’ “A Streetcar Named Desire,” starring the famous star, Huma Rojo (Marisa Paredes). Manuela confesses to Esteban that she had once played Stella to his father’s Stanley Kowalski in the Williams’ play, and so we anticipate this information to feature later in the plot, as it does. The play’s legendary last scene, when Blanche is taken away too an asylum after descending into madness, is repeated several times, though each time with a different actress playing Stella.

For most of her adulthood, Manuela has lived a life of quiet desperation, replete of lies–small and big lies–to herself and to others. Manuela has told Esteban that his father had died before he was born, and she now promises to tell him about his lineage once they return home from the show. Sadly, this never happens, due to a fatal car accident. On a fateful rainy night, Huma and her co-star, the lesbian junkie lover Nina (Candela Pena), board a taxicab after the show. Running after them for an autograph, Esteban is hit by the taxi. The utterly devastated Manuela, who witnesses the accident, is a nurse who organizes seminars to counsel relatives of prospective organ donors. She immediately decides to donate Esteban’s body, and violating the rules, takes a trip to meet (incognito) the recipient of her son’s organs. Almodovar inserts a close-up of the middle-aged recipient’s chest when he happily gets out of the hospital, with the new beating heart of a youngster.

After the tragedy, Manuela begins to deal with the disaster by bringing together the disparate and unfinished elements of her life. Honoring Esteban’s last wish to find his father, who’s also named Esteban, she returns to her hometown Barcelona to seek him out. The boy’s father is a transvestite, Lola the Pioneer (Toni Canto), who never knew he had a child because Manuela didn’t tell him. Manuela later recalls how Esteban became Lola in Paris, where he got a pair of huge breasts, bigger than hers.

Having left Barcelona while pregnant eighteen years earlier, Manuela is now looking for Esteban-Lola at a sleazy pick-up place. It’s a marginal, remote milieu, populated by sleazy older men, cruise hustlers and prostitutes, both male and female. Arriving by taxi, Manuela encounters a battered transsexual, beaten up in the open fields by a frustrated customer. La Agrado has huge, artificial breasts and a huge, real cock (More about it later). He/she turns out to be Manuela’s old friend from their Barcelona days. He goes by the name of La Agrado (Antonia San Juan), because, as he explains, “I always agree.”

Two decades ago, La Agrado lived with Manuela and Esteban’s father, before the latter had sex-change operation. La Agrado complains to Manuela that she had taken in the sickly HIV-positive Lola, but to her chagrin, the ungrateful Lola ran off with all of her money and possessions. Through Agrado, Manuela meets Sister Rosa (Penelope Cruz), a nun bound for missionary service in El Salvador. Manuela then becomes personal assistant to Huma, the stage actress whom her son had admired. She helps Huma manage her life, which is mostly controlling Nina, her tempestuous, drug-addicted younger lover, who periodically abandons her.

Deciding to change her life, La Agrado goes to see Sister Rosa for counseling. It turns out that Sister Rosa had been impregnated and infected by Lola with the HIV virus. Though resistant at first, Manuela decides to nurse Sister Rosa through her pregnancy, the birth of her child, and eventually her death (at childbirth, of course). As Lola is ravaged by AIDS, Rosa’s child is born HIV-positive. In the climax, Manuela confronts Lola, the dying transsexual and father of her son. Manuela decides to bring up the baby boy who is also named Esteban, and all ends well, when the third Esteban defeats the lethal virus.