(All About My Mother)
Director: Pedro Almodóvar
Production: El Deseo S.A., France 2 Cinéma, Renn Productions, Via Digital; color, 35mm, Panavision; sound: Dolby Digital; running time: 105 minutes. Released 8 April 1999 in Spain; filmed in Barcelona, Madrid, and A Coruña, Spain.
Producer: Agustín Almodóvar; screenplay: Pedro Almodóvar; cinematographer: Affonso Beato; editor: José; Salcedo; music: Alberto Iglesias; production design: Antxón Gómez; art direction: Antxón Gómez; costume design: Sabine Daigeler; José María De Cossio.
Cecilia Roth (
); Marisa Parédes (
); Penélope Cruz (
); Candela Peña (
); Antonia San Juan (
); Eloy Azorín (
); Rosa María Sardà (
); Toni Cantó (
); Fernando Fernán Gómez (
); Carlos Lozano (
); Fernando Guillén (
Doctor in "Streetcar Named Desire"
); Juan José Otegui (
); Manuel Morón; José Luis Torrijo.
Bouza Vidal, Nuria, The Films of Pedro Almodovar , translated by Linda Moore and Victoria Hughes, Madrid, 1988.
Smith, Paul Julian, García Lorca/Almodóvar: Gender, Nationality, and the Limits of the Visible , Cambridge, 1995.
Vernon, Kathleen M., and Barbara Morris, editors, Post-Franco, Postmodern: The Films of Pedro Almodovar , Westport, 1995.
Allinson, Mark, A Spanish Labyrinth: The Films of Pedro Almodovar , London, 2000.
Smith, Paul J., Desire Unlimited: The Cinema of Pedro Almodovar , New York, 2000.
Menard, Valerie, "El Conquistador Del Cine: Provocative Filmmaker Pedro Almódovar Explores the Human Experience," in Hispanic , vol. 11, no. 5, May 1998.
Holland, Jonathan, in Variety (New York), vol. 354, no. 9, 19 April 1999.
Smith, Paul Julian, and José Arroyo, "Silicone and Sentiment: All About My Mother ," in Sight & Sound (London), vol. 9, no. 9, September 1999.
"A Man of Many Women," an interview with Jonathan Van Meter, in New York Times Magazine , 12 September 1999.
Lemon, Brendan, "A Man Fascinated by Women, as Actresses," in New York Times , 19 September 1999.
Ressner, Jeffrey, "Loving Pedro: Almódovar, the Naughty Boy of Spanish Cinema, Pays Warm Tribute to Strong Women and Produces the Most Satisfying Work of His Career with All About My Mother ," in Time (New York), vol. 154, no. 20, 15 November 1999.
Cortina, Betty, "On the Verge: Pedro Almódovar Gets Big Raves with All About My Mother: And He May Just Go Hollywood," in Entertainment Weekly , no. 513, 19 November 1999.
"The Best of Cinema of 1999," in Time (New York), vol. 154, no. 25, 20 December 1999.
* * *
Women have almost always been at the center of the Almodóvar universe, and that is more than ever true in Todo sobre mi madre ( All About My Mother ). His 1999 film is explicitly dedicated to women and actresses, and particularly to actresses who have played actresses in such great films as All About Eve. That film, and Tennessee William's A Streetcar Named Desire , are the primary influences on the director's latest work, but his story transcends even its influences.
Cecilia Roth plays Manuela, who once was an actress but now supports herself and her seventeen-year-old son with her work as a nurse in an agency that facilitates the donation and transplantation of human organs. We actually first meet her as she is playing the part in a training film for her organization of a woman who must decide amidst the grief of the sudden death of a family member whether or not to allow the transplantation of heart and liver to someone in need.
Manuela's son Esteban (Eloy Azorín) will be celebrating his birthday in a day or two, and would like nothing better from his mother than for her to tell him all about his father. Manuela recognizes that Esteban has nearly grown up, and that she can not rightly withhold this information from him any longer. But first they are going to see a performance of Streetcar , with the central role of Blanche played by a great actress named Huma Rojos. Marisa Parédes, who brought both Tacones lejanos ( High Heels ) and La flor de mi secreto ( The Flower of My Secret ) to vibrant life, seems the only possible choice for the role of Huma (which means "smoke").
After the performance, Manuela and Esteban wait in the rain to get an autograph from Huma, but she is engrossed in an argument with Nina, her heroin-addicted lover who plays Stella in the same production, and they disregard the boy who bangs on their window as they continue fighting. He runs after their car in the rain, and the chance of a moment transforms his mother from a nurse into a grieving parent who must make the same choices she has helped so many others to make.
All this takes place in the first ten minutes of the film, and the plot and characterizations develop ever more richly as the story progresses. After disposing of her son's heart, Manuela takes a train from Madrid to Barcelona, reversing a trip she had made eighteen years earlier, running away from the Esteban who was the father of her unborn child, and who was in the process of becoming Lola. This marks Almodóvar's first significant foray out of Madrid, which has been the location of his twelve previous feature films.
In Barcelona, Manuela comes again into the orbit of Huma and Nina, and also becomes reacquainted with an old friend, Agrado, another male-to-female transsexual who has not quite completed all the surgery of her transformation. At the same time she meets a young nun, Sister Rosa, who tries to be a nurse to people like Agrado who support their tangential existences with prostitution and drug dealing, but will soon be in need of nursing. No matter where Manuela runs to, she cannot run away from her work. Richard Corliss in his lovely, perceptive Time review says that "[Manuela] . . . is the ultimate organ donor. Now that her heart has been broken, she gives pieces of it to everyone."
These characters revolve around each other in ways that are sometimes mutually supportive, sometimes antagonistic, and mostly have the archetypal importance of characters from a story by Garcia Lorca. They deal with all of the issues of birth and life and death, sometimes as actresses, sometimes as working women, and sometimes in a blend of these roles that cannot be separated out.
Penélope Cruz and Candela Peña deliver wonderfully affecting performances as Sister Rosa and Nina. Nevertheless, with both of these wonderful performances, not to mention those of Parédes and of Antonia San Juan as Agrado, it is Cecilia Roth in the central role of Manuela who truly astonishes us with her mastery. She establishes her love of her son so compellingly that you cannot imagine how she can live after he dies. And then she shows you how she can live, and help other people to live as they deal with their own tragedies.
As tragic as some elements of Todo sobre mi madre can be, and as much as death and AIDS play a central part in the development of the plot, this is not a movie that overwhelms its audience in sadness. Many glints of the old Almodóvar humor shine through, particularly in a spur-of-the-moment monologue delivered by Agrado when Huma and Nina cannot go on in "Streetcar" one evening. Agrado regales the remaining audience with the story of her life, climaxing with the affirmation that "it cost me a lot to be authentic. . . Because a woman is more authentic the more she looks like what she has dreamed for herself."
This comic affirmation reinforces the more serious affirmation of the story—that life goes on even when faced with the inevitability of death, and that life is enriched more by helping each other in the living than in trying to go it alone. Almodóvar's community of women and actresses and children of all ages do just that, and have to be granted some kind of cinematic immortality for the beautifully simple way that they imprint themselves on our hearts.
While many critics agree with Corliss that Todo sobre mi madre is "the most satisfying work in a glittering, consistently surprising career," others cannot seem to adjust to an Almodóvar who does not continue to crank out the no-holds-barred satire with which he first introduced himself to international audiences. Roger Ebert foregrounds the elements of this old Almodóvar in his reliably mainstream, middle-brow review, but acknowledges that the "characters have taken on a weight and reality, as if Almodóvar has finally taken pity on them. . . "
Stanley Kauffmann starts off his review praising the old Almodóvar ("When he began his career . . . he seemed to burst forth, with satire ablaze, to revenge himself . . . on the oppressive stupidities and hypocrisies of society.") But in Todo sobre mi madre , Kauffmann finds ". . . no discernable theme: its purpose is to surprise us with non-soap incidents in a soap opera about women."
B. W. Ife, however, writing in the Times Literary Supplement , demonstrates that critics can break out of the mold of prior expectations. While he found Almodóvar's two previous films, La flor de mi secreto and Carne tremulo ( Live Flesh ) to possess ". . . a sense of compromise, of maturity achieved at the cost of a slight dulling of the edge," he can still see that with his latest feature the director has "found his true voice and written an intricate, insightful screenplay which allows it to be heard to full advantage."