All About My Mother (Spain, 1999)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

The Pedro Almodovar of the late 1990s is not the same director who once engaged audiences with his kinky and offbeat views of sex and relationships. This new, kinder, gentler Almodovar is more concerned about conventional film elements like plot and character, and less determined to shock his viewers. The characteristics that once defined Almodovar films have become background aspects - still present, but not thrown into bas-relief. All About My Mother is the third consecutive movie in which Almodovar has applied this moderated style, proving even to doubters that the filmmaker has matured. After fumbling a little in The Flower of My Secret, Almodovar came back strong in 1997 with Live Flesh. His latest, All About My Mother, was the hit of the 1999 Cannes Film Festival, where everyone except the jury thought it should have won the Palme D'Or. It proves to be Almodovar's most accomplished picture to date.

The difference between sensitive, emotionally true melodramas and manipulative tear-jerkers is not hard to define. It all comes down to two basic characteristics: believable characters and an intelligent script. Tripe like Stepmom and Patch Adams lack a measure of both. Powerful movies like All About My Mother possess those qualities in abundance. The storyline here is fresh and effectively paced, features a strongly realized protagonist, and traverses a few unexpected paths. Consequently, watching this film is a wholly satisfying experience.

The film opens in Madrid, where Esteban (Eloy Azorín) is about to celebrate his 17th birthday. On the cusp of adulthood, Esteban is blossoming into an accomplished writer, and he jots down in his journal that he wishes his mother, Manuela (Cecilia Roth), would tell him the story of his father, whom he has never met. After Esteban makes his feelings known to her, Manuela promises to tell him, but tragedy strikes before she has an opportunity. While running after a taxi to get the autograph of a star he admires, Esteban is struck and killed by a car. A grieving Manuela then decides to travel from Madrid to Barcelona, where Esteban was conceived, to find her ex-husband and inform him that the son he never knew about is dead.

Arriving in Barcelona, Manuela runs into her old friend, Agrado (Antonia San Juan), a transvestite prostitute, who informs her that her former husband, who goes by the name of Lola, has vanished. Together, Manuela and Agrado visit Rosa (Penelope Cruz), the young nun who last saw Lola. However, although Rosa does not know Lola's current location, she is anxious to find him - while shepherding him through a drug detox program, Rosa became sexually involved with Lola, and she now carries his child. Meanwhile, Manuela takes time out of her schedule to visit a theater where a version of Tennessee Williams play "A Streetcar Named Desire" is being produced, and, while there, she meets Huma Rojo (Marisa Paredes), the actress whose autograph Esteban was pursuing when he was killed.

As the title implies, All About My Mother is about mothers and their relationships with their natural or surrogate children. It's also about the other roles that women occupy when they're not caring for their sons and daughters. There are no significant male characters in the film. Esteban dies early and Agardo, while born a male (and still possessing male genitalia), thinks and behaves like a woman. The absence of men allows Almodovar to explore interpersonal interaction without being concerned about testosterone interference. This results in a thoughtful and emotionally rich tapestry.

During the course of All About My Mother, Manuela is a mother three times over - first to her biological child, Esteban, then to Rosa, whom she takes into her home, and finally to a baby who comes into her custody. Unlike the other characters in this film, she does not hide behind a facade - she is a capable actress, but chooses not to pursue the profession. Instead, she decides to expend her time and effort caring for others. And Manuela is not the only mother in the film. Huma is a mother-figure to her much younger lover, Nina (Candela Peña), and Rosa is expecting a baby. All these women have nurturing sides and instincts, but none are as committed as Manuela. She is not actively looking to replace Esteban, but she finds a way to fill the void that his death has left.

On the surface, it might seem that Almodovar has dug into his usual rogues' gallery for some of All About My Mother's characters. After all, the film features a pregnant nun and a pair of half-men/half-women. However, instead of accentuating the bizarre characteristics of these individuals, Almodover concentrates on their humanity. They are not developed as caricatures; they are brought to life as people worth sympathizing with. Every relationship in this film, regardless of who the participants are, is built with care and consideration.

For his principals, the director has mined the best of Spain's talent. Penelope Cruz and Marisa Paredes, both veterans of Almodovar's past work, breathe life into their characters. Cruz, as usual, is extremely likable, and Paredes brings a mixture of toughness and world weariness to the part of Huma. There's a particularly poignant scene in which she recognizes that she may be successful, but that, after you've had success for a while, you no longer notice it. However, the centerpiece of All About My Mother is Cecilia Roth. Almodovar has used her several times before, but never has she been as vibrant as she is here.

From a visual standpoint, the film bears the director's trademark of bright colors arranged in interesting patterns. There are red dresses, yellow tabletops, orange shirts, etc. There are also a number of striking images, including that of a train racing through a tunnel and Manuela standing in front of a giant image of Huma's face. Thematically, Almodovar alludes to both "A Streetcar Named Desire" and All About Eve on multiple occasions. So, although All About My Mother can be viewed as an exquisitely constructed melodrama, for those who wish to dig deeper, there are other riches to uncover. For Almodovar, this picture represents the latest high point in a lively career. It is one of the best motion pictures that 1999 has to offer.

All About My Mother (Spain, 1999)

Ranked #10 in Berardinelli's Top 10 of 1999
Run Time: 1:45
U.S. Release Date: 1999-11-19
MPAA Rating: "R" (Sexual Situations, Nudity, Profanity, Drugs)
Genre: DRAMA
Subtitles: Spanish with English subtitles
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2:35:1