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All About My Mother

(Pedro Almodóvar, Spain, 1999)


 


Writer-director Pedro Almodóvar likes to honour the past – especially the masterpieces of cinema and theatre that have influenced and nourished him. He performs this homage with disarming directness in All About My Mother.

The destiny of Huma (Marisa Paredes), a famous stage actress, changes on the night that she encounters Manuela (Cecilia Roth) – since she "depends on the kindness of strangers", just like the character she plays each night in Tennessee Williams' A Streetcar Named Desire.

Both Manuela and her colourful, transvestite friend, Agrado (Antonia San Juan), become, at different times, Huma's personal assistant – prompting the remark from Huma's difficult, suspicious lover, Nina (Candela Pena), that life is obviously imitating the Bette Davis classic All About Eve (1950).

What initiates the entire, complicated plot of the film is the act of Manuela's son, Esteban (Eloy Azorin), rushing over to Huma's car for an autograph – just as Gena Rowlands' fan did at the beginning of John Cassavetes' Opening Night (1978), with equally dramatic and resonant consequences.

Almodóvar fashions this film as a tribute not only to art, fiction and theatre but also to women – and especially motherhood. All these topics are intimately connected for him, precisely because femininity, in the extravagant sense that the film explores and celebrates it, is all at once a physical reality, a masquerade, a dream and an ideal. So men can be women, too – and all these women become, in some way or form, mothers.

Almodóvar's script is a dazzling, inexhaustible construction. Nothing happens in this film that is not first prepared for, later echoed and then significantly mirrored on some other level of the story. Characters, almost magically, take on each others' traits, impulses and dreams across the years and generations; glimpses of theatre productions (by Williams or Garcia Lorca) constantly reflect and refract the dilemmas and delusions of those on, around or in front of the stage.

Advocates of contemporary identity politics – extolling the fluid, hybrid, constructed nature of behaviour and lifestyle – will find All About My Mother a genial and reassuring movie, with its parade of fanciful characters and its proud motto: "You are most authentic when you most closely resemble your dream of yourself."

Yet Almodóvar is no slave to cultural fads. His humanism embraces every kind of person (from the straightest to the most outrageous), and every form of relating. The blood ties of the traditional family unit matter as much to him as the chosen families created by new sexual mores – and the most important dream of all is to merge all these types of family in a single, generous community.

Almodóvar is at the height of his mastery as a film artist here. Not for him the flashy transitional images, the slow motion inserts and over-elaborated fantasy sequences that litter far lesser films like American Beauty (1999).

The Flower of My Secret (1995) inaugurated a new, intensely serious phase of Almodóvar's career. That film, Live Flesh (1997) and now All About My Mother form a profound trilogy that towers over most other cinema of recent years.

It is as if Almodóvar had decided to single-handedly revive the great era of screen melodrama – in particular, the '50s films of Douglas Sirk (Imitation of Life, 1959, Written on the Wind, 1955). Although humour and flamboyance will always be his trademarks, Almodóvar embraces melodrama as a fundamentally grave story telling form.

In the universe of his recent films, there is no act, no gesture – however recklessly committed according to the heat or whim of passion – that does not have everlasting and far-reaching consequences. His characters are bound in complex webs of mutual responsibility: quite literally, their only defence against death is their capacity to take care of each other.

Accordingly, there are no villains in All About My Mother. His characters may make foolish, cruel, irresponsible mistakes, but they find their ultimate dignity in the struggle to make their own little circle of humanity a better, more sustainable place.

All About My Mother, for all its subterranean, slow-burning intensity, is a surprisingly quiet, deliberately undemonstrative piece. Gone are the wild clinches, crimes of passion and athletic sex scenes of Almodóvar's early comedies. Cinematic melodrama is here reduced to its tersest essence: the comings and goings, hellos and goodbyes; the pangs of reminiscence, looks and smiles.

Almodóvar refuses to include a central, climactic scene that could provide his audience with a handy catharsis for all that is loved, lost and regained in the course of this sublime film. The emotion contained in the story and its telling spreads out, seeps in everywhere: on the three occasions that I have seen it, I have found myself overwhelmed by entirely different moments and details each time.

All About My Mother is a rich, astounding gift from one of cinema's living angels.

MORE Almodóvar: Law of Desire

© Adrian Martin March 2000


Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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