Original release: April 16th, medicine 1999
Running time: 105 minutes
Country of origin: Spain
Original language: Spanish
Writer and director: Pedro Almodovar
Cast: Cecilia Roth, Marisa Parades, Penelope Cruz
You can love something so much you may struggle to describe why. Much like the love between a mother and child, my relationship with Pedro Almodovar’s All About My Mother fits that mold.
All About My Mother peaks Almodovar’s preoccupation with women on the verge of nervous breakdowns in melodramatic tragicomedies. There are many mothers in this story but at the center is Manuela (Cecilia Roth), a nurse and single mother, who lives in Madrid with her teenage son Esteban (Eloy Azorin), an aspiring writer. Esteban has been working on a school assignment for which he’s writing about his mother. He asks her questions about his father whom he’s never known. Soon after, Esteban is tragically run over by a car on his eighteenth birthday when chasing after actress Huma Rojo (Marisa Parades) for an autograph having watched her perform the part of Blanche DuBois in A Streetcar Named Desire. A distraught Manuela watches her son die and agrees to donate his heart to a patient in need. Having lost her purpose in life, she goes to Barcelona in search of Esteban’s father to honor her late son’s wishes and close the gap she deliberately maintained between them.
In Barcelona, she reunites with old friend Agrado (Antonia San Juan), a transvestite prostitute with a heart as big as her force-of-nature personality. Agrado introduces Manuela to Rosa (Penelope Cruz), a pregnant nun who works to rehabilitate prostitutes, to help her find a job and the two establish an immediate friendship. Manuela’s path crosses Huma’s again and she ends up working for the actress as an assistant less and a mentor more. There’s also Huma’s love interest and co-star in the form of Nina (Canela Pena) who loves coke more than Huma. All characters’ lives intertwine in interesting and unexpected ways. When Nina is incapacitated from an overdose, Manuela gets to relive her younger days of acting by taking over Nina’s role in the play that holds significant meaning to her life. At a funeral, Manuela finally gets a chance for deliverance with Esteban’s father Lola (Toni Canto), another transvestite prostitute who is sick and nearing death.
It’s hard not to fall in love with Almodovar’s heroines, and the same is true of the cast here. He has a special ability for taking characters from the fringes of society, throwing them into implausible settings and making them seem more real than we could imagine. He takes a transvestite prostitute, a pregnant nun, two lesbian actresses and makes those the least interesting things about them. In so doing, not only does he rise above social stereotypes but also gives us a rare example of female friendships portrayed well on screen. There’s a scene where all four leading characters – Manuela, Agrado, Rosa and Huma – share screen space together for the only time. I love it for the wide range of topics discussed and emotions revealed.
Almodovar has made a career of testing his audience’s understanding of traditional gender and identity roles. When I first watched this film at the young age of twenty, the culture shock I experienced in the form of the atypical characters was only part of the reason the film made such an impression on me. It opened my mind to different kinds of love than what I was used to. It’s amazing how much the mind can get used to the same, tireless tropes. Almodovar’s films educate as much as they enthral and therein lies their appeal.
I will forever be grateful to Almodovar for creating possibly my favorite movie character of all time – Agrado. It’s nearly impossible not to be charmed by her; she’s every bit as agreeable as she claims to be and brings much-needed comic relief to the film. She handles the sexual objectification that comes with her field of work with uncharacteristic humility. There’s a remarkable scene where she goes up on stage to apologize for a cancelled show and proceeds to entertain the audience by improvising on her life with details of the many cosmetic surgeries that aided her transformation from man to woman. Despite her toned, touched-up exterior, she’s raw and real inside: “All I have that’s real are my feelings.”
The visuals in All About My Mother are beautiful, not so much in the sense as a contender for ‘best cinematography’, but for their crimson lusciousness. Shades of red are omnipresent in the film in a manner that seems neither coincidental nor forced. In the form of Manuela’s sweaters, it reminds us of the fresh grief of the loss of her son she carries with a heavy heart; in Rosa’s overcoat, it mimics her tendency to wear her heart on her sleeve; in Agrado’s lipstick it betrays her fierce vulnerability and in the walls of Huma’s dressing room, it matches her incendiary love for Nina that nearly wrecks both their lives.
This film is ably supported with a fantastic soundtrack which brings to life the dramatic quotient of key scenes. A particular favorite is Ismael Lo’s “Tajabone” which perfectly captures Manuela’s state of mind without any need for words or actions as she leaves Madrid for Barcelona in search of Esteban’s father.
There are consistent references to classics such as All About Eve (1950), A Streetcar Named Desire (1951) and works of Fredreico Garcia Lora in the film and this makes it a fitting tribute to actresses and the art of acting. Huma’s a wonderful combination of an ageing actress no longer able to find triumph in her success and a young optimist looking to find love from her drug-abusing lover.
All About My Mother celebrates mothers in more ways than the title suggests. Almodovar’s playfulness with normative gender roles that I mentioned earlier is in full force here. In Manuela, he gives us the responsible mother who’d stop at nothing to provide for her son as well as the universal mother whose kindness those around her come to depend on. In Rosa, he gives us a HIV positive pregnant nun who looks forward to motherhood in spite of being like a child herself. In Lola, he gives us a philandering husband who wants to make amends in her final days – despite the careless and hurtful ways of her past, all she wants in the end is to see the child she fathered.
By writing and directing stories about people that seem like caricatures on the surface and probing deeper to reveal their humanity, Almodovar’s work serves as a powerful agent for social change. In this loving tribute to his own mother, he also reminds us all where we came from.
Richa developed an interest in films while attending a weekly movie club as therapy during her pursuit of a graduate degree in Statistics. The interest evolved into a passion for the visual storytelling medium and she’s currently working on her first screenplay. She prefers films that view the world from a sociological lens and tell stories of courage.
Richa tries to use films as a means for becoming a better person and especially appreciates a film that proves her initial gut instinct wrong. Some of her favorites are All About My Mother, Rosemary's Baby, Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind, Antichrist, In The Mood For Love, Omkara, Andaz Apna Apna and Ponette.
You can follow her on Twitter at @richarudola.