All About My Mother (Todo Sobre Mi Madre) (Spain, 1998) *** 1/2
Written & directed by Pedro Almodovar. Executive producer, Agustin Almodovar. Photography, Affonso Beato. Editing, Jose Salcedo. Production director, Esther Garcia. Music, Alberto Iglesias. Cast: Cecilia Roth (Manuela), Marisa Paredes (Huma Rojo), Candel Pena (Nina), Antonia San Juan (Agrado), Penelope Cruz (Sister Rosa), Rosa Maria Sarda (Rosa's mother), Fernando Fernan Gomez (Rosa's father), Toni Canto (Lola), Eloy Azorin (Esteban), Carlos Lozano (Mario), Fernando Guillen (Doctor in "Streetcar Named Desire") et al. A Sony Pictures Classics release. 101 minutes. R (sex talk, one drug-addicted character)
Pedro Almodovar made several shorts in 1974-79 and 13 features since 1980 ("Dark Habits,'' Matador,'' "Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown,'' "High Heels," etc.) Though in Number 14 Almodovar seems to be gentler and kinder, it is no 180-degree departure from his past work. The enfant terrible of Spanish cinema, whether on the surface or below it, has always been kind, gentle and humorous, and "Mother" has a lot of humor. It also has a lot of sadness, but it is mostly overcome by spunk, love and women's solidarity. For this is a movie about women, dedicated to them, and placing them on some --admittedly weird--pedestals --and a paean to motherhood.
Enchanting, Argentina-born Cecilia Roth plays Manuela. In Madrid, she is a nurse, a coordinator of transplants in a hospital, and the single mother of Esteban. The mother-son relationship is beautiful in its friendship and affection. The boy, charming, smart, gifted, precociously cultured, wants to be a writer. He's already keeping notes. Manuela has told that his father died before Esteban was born, but she keeps mum about anything regarding that man. She has old photos of herself where one-half is torn off. It is clear to the young man that the missing part portrayed his father. Esteban is curious.
On his 17th birthday Manuela and her son watch on TV the film "All About Eve." Inspired, Esteban titles his notebook "All About my Mother."
The two go to the theater. The much-admired Huma Rojo plays Blanche in "A Streetcar Named Desire." After the show, as Esteban rushes in the rain to get the star's autograph, he gets killed by a car. With black irony, Manuela is asked for permission to transplant his heart.
The movie is so rich in characters and episodes that detailing them would be a disservice to potential viewers. Simplifying the story, I will say that Manuela, after an 18-year absence from her native Barcelona, returns to find the boy's father, to tell him that he had a son, that the son always thought of his father. For the latter, also named Esteban, was alive (but not well), and had become Lola.
You have to stay alert to figure out who the characters are, and what, including Manuela in her earlier days. Let's just state that the milieu in which Manuela will move in Barcelona is one of prostitutes, transvestites, transsexuals and other "exceptional" cases. Yet it remains an essentially warm and loving circle, partly because of a line quoted from "Streetcar," about 'the kindness of strangers.'
Coincidences abound in the movie, but do not distract or detract. Manuela's quest for Lola starts with a meeting of an old friend, the transsexual prostitute Agrado, which roughly translated means "I please." This in turn leads to pretty young nun Rosa, who cares for destitute prostitutes. Rosa is the alienated (but not in the usual way) child of a mother who paints fake Chagalls, and a father who has Alzheimer's or something like that. He's totally out of it.
The plot then adds the presence of the "Streetcar" troupe that is now playing in Barcelona; the connections of, first Manuela, then Agrado, with the thespians; the lesbian affair between Huma (the name means roughly "chainsmoker") and Nina, who plays Stella. Says Huma:" Nina is addicted to heroin, I am addicted to Nina." Then comes the revelation that Rosa is pregnant (by, guess who? Lola! ) and HIV-positive.
This is melodrama --down to the near-miraculous happy ending two years later.-- barefaced and proud of it. In American cinema the German-born Douglas Sirk was notorious for his melodramas. Wild and woolly Almodovar runs circles around Sirk and such. He is enamored of Hollywood melodramatic films (cited among other filmic references) as well as Latin American movies of that type. It may sound like a penchant for pop culture, but then I remember that the great critic-scholar of theater Eric Bentley declared (if my quotation is right) that "Melodrama is the essence of theater."
Melodrama with twist after twist, including something that the rich American cinema ignores to the point of destruction: literacy and culture. Not only film references abound, but literary ones nicely worked in: Tennessee Williams, Truman Capote, Boris Vian...
"Mother" is theater of emotions, but it is not judgmental. Nor is it "classical" in format. It is shot with Almodovarian avant-garde techniques, camera angles and tricks, garishly pleasant colors. Almodovar plays a game of Chinese boxes, with film-within-film, videos, TV, with symbols within the hyper-realistic context. Think of how the transplants, in their own remote way also evoke esthetic surgery and transsexual operations.
The word "tolerance" is never spoken but the notion is there, all over, not as a plea but as a necessity for life.
What is really surprising is the tolerance of today's Spain vis-a-vis subjects that once were taboo. After its Civil War, General Francisco Franco ruled the country from 1939 to his death in 1975. Censorship and self-censorship reigned in that prudish, conservative nation. In the last part of Franco's life, a number of movies appeared which --like many Polish films--used on-the-face-of-it politically innocuous themes, but in reality had camouflaged sub-texts, metaphors, symbols which the savvy audiences understood. Then Spain exploded after Franco's demise. I still remember kiosks with astounding arrays of "girlie" if not porno magazines. Even so, it took Almodovar (who is homosexual) to become the most influential agent provocateur in cinema, to the extent that today, a major, sexually outspoken film like "Mother" (which was awarded Best Director at Cannes 99) is accepted without second thoughts in Spain but would have trouble in the United States.