Directed by: Pedro Almodóvar » Written by: Pedro Almodóvar, 1999 » Region/Time: Spain, 101 minutes.

Starring: Cecilia Roth as Manuela » Eloy Azorín as Esteban » Antonia San Juan as Agrado » Penélope Cruz as Sister Rosa » Marisa Paredes as Huma Rojo » Toni Cantó as Lola.

Spanish film director Pedro Almodóvar is the recognized leader New Spanish Cinema and the head of La Movida (The Movement), the post-Franco Spanish pop culture scene. All About My Mother was the first film in what many critics considered the mature Almodóvar era and won more international acclaim than any other of Almodóvar’s films, including the director’s prize at the Cannes Film Festival and the best foreign language film at the Academy Awards.

Upon the initial release of this movie, Almodóvar stated “I’ve been making movies for the past twenty years – and, really, the same kind of movie. Sometimes I was accused of being scandalously modern, sometimes an opportunist. But now critics have realized that whatever it is I do, it is authentic. They see how close I feel to the characters in the margin. Characters at the margin of life are at the center of my movies.” Indeed, All About My Mother has a crazy pastiche of unbelievable plot turns and its scenes are filled with transvestites, HIV positive nuns, height-obsessed senile fathers, lesbian actresses and disapproving mothers.

The movie was inspired by one of the characters of The Flower of my Secret, Manuela, a nurse, who participates in role-playing sessions for the surgeons who perform transplants. In the earlier film (and again in All About My Mother), Manuela role-plays a mother who is being informed about the death of her son. Almodóvar had a revelation filming this moment: “When I shot this scene I noticed that the female actors were much better in interpreting their role than their male colleagues and I developed the idea to realize a movie that deals with the ability to act of some persons who are not actors.” In this film, a single mother in Madrid is devoted to her only son, Esteban. He is a writer and is writing a story called “All About My Mother”, which he titles after watching the 1950 film All About Eve.

On his 17th birthday, he gets a picture of his mother as a young actress doing a version of A Streetcar Named Desire, and we see half of the photograph has been torn away. Mother and son go to see a local production of of Streetcar, and, as the son runs to seek the autograph of the lead actress (Huma Rojo), he is struck by a car and killed. The scene she role-plays at the beginning of the film is replayed, only for real, as the surgeons ask her to donate her son’s organs for transplants. Manuela is grief stricken, and flees her job as a nurse, ending up in Barcelona on a quest to find her son’s father. She arrives and reunites with an old friend of hers and her ex-husband, a transvestite named Agrado, only to find that the father, who we discover is a transvestite named Lola, has recently fled the city. Manuela first works for Huma Rojo and her co-star and lesbian partner, Nina, and then ends up caring for a nun who is carrying the unborn child of her ex-husband, Lola (née Estaban).

If all this sounds confusing, it is straightforward as you watch it. In what was no doubt intended to be a lambasting, a critic wrote that an earlier Almodóvar film was “so filled with coincidences, contrivances, and unforeseeable interlockings that it feels like an entire season’s worth of a primetime soap opera played in two hours on a bullet train…” Almodóvar uses this heightened melodrama with elements of comedy to describe the most painful of events – the death of a child – and the effects this has on the life of a mother. He dramatizes the near-superhuman ability required to overcome the pain of loss, to forgive and the unlimited capacity for generosity of the female soul. A child of intense Roman Catholic upbringing and openly gay, Almodóvar has always been praised for his insightful depiction of women. While much of his work can be seen as a reaction against the repressive culture of Franco and his regime, he is also influenced by the comedies of American directors like Ernst Lubitsch, Billy Wilder and Preston Sturges.

A passing familiarity to both All About Eve and Streetcar Named Desire would enrich the filmgoing experience as characters inadvertently act out various moments from both works—at one point, Manuela is even referred to as Eve Harrington, when she gains fantastic reviews after stealing Nina’s role in a play.

Although the two Esteban characters cast formidable shadows over the movie, male characters are absent for much of the movie (unless one counts Agrado as male). I found this refreshing, especially compared to the majority of male-centric Hollywood films. For me, the most moving moment of the movie occurs when Sister Rosa, on her way to the hospital to give birth, meets her senile father in the park she grew up in. He does not know who she is, and she doesn’t let on she is his daughter, although her eyes fill with tears. Typical Almodóvar.

After making Penélope Cruz a star with this film, Almodóvar managed to snag her an Oscar nomination for his last film, Volver (which is fantastic, by the way). His latest movie also stars Penélope and comes out later this year. It is called Broken Embraces and will, undoubtably, be crazy. The trailer looks like film noir crossed with melodrama, even without subtitles.

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