Program Notes: All About My Mother (1999)
No moviemaker – straight, gay or somewhere in between – loves women with the same intensity as Spanish director Pedro Almodóvar. And with All About My Mother Almodóvar sends a cinematic valentine to women everywhere.
My Mother... is a heartfelt examination of the feminine spirit, presented through a tapestry of characters and plots so densely woven and flawlessly displayed that it's almost impossible to single out individual performances or moments.
The film is a seamless whole, seething with passion and, quite unexpectedly, wisdom.
The central character is Manuela (Cecilia Roth), a nurse in the transplant unit of a Madrid hospital.
After the death of her teen-age son, Manuela retreats to her hometown of Barcelona to mourn, re-establish old acquaintances, and sort out her shattered life.
Once a mother, though, always a mother. Quite unexpectedly, this naturally nurturing soul finds herself playing a healing presence in several lives.
Among those pulled into Manuela's gentle orbit:
Huma Rojo (Marisa Paredes), a scarlet-haired grande dame of the Spanish theater who hires Manuela as her personal assistant and all-around dispenser of common sense. Manuela is particularly effective in dealing with Huma's current flame, a young actress (Candela Peña) with a drug problem.
Sister Rosa (Penélope Cruz), a selfless Roman Catholic social worker whose ministrations to Barcelona's outcasts ironically have left her pregnant and alone.
Rosa's mother (Rosa Maria Sardà), a brittle society matron dealing not only with her do-gooder daughter but a senile husband who gets lost walking the dog.
Agrado (Antonia San Juan), a transsexual prostitute and would-be actress who, thanks to silicone and hormones, is a woman from the waist up but remains a guy from the waist down.
These characters are compelling in their own right, but Almodóvar cannily slips into his screenplay countless references to two seminal dramatic works about women.
Shortly before his death, Manuela and her son (Eloy Azarín) watch a TV broadcast of Bette Davis' backstage classic All About Eve, whose plot will later be mirrored in Manuela's employment by the actress Huma.
And Huma is starring in a touring company of Tennessee Williams' A Streetcar Named Desire, the great tragedy about the fragile Blanche Dubois, who has always relied upon "the kindness of strangers."
Indeed the kindness of strangers is very much the subject of All About My Mother, which becomes a loving examination of the various forms taken by compassion.
The film is not without moments of the trademark Almodóvar outrageousness, the high point coming when a performance of Streetcar... is canceled and the transsexual Agrado takes the opportunity to seize the stage and regale the stunned patrons with his/her life story.
But Almodóvar isn’t satisfied here to be just a clever iconoclast. Within its frankly melodramatic framework (we're talking a reliance on coincidence that verges on camp), the filmmaker evokes genuine feelings of love.
Bring your hankies for this one.
Other films in the series “Almodóvar's Women”
Saturdays at 2:00 p.m.:
- March 2: The Flower of My Secret (1995) Rated R
- March 9: Broken Embraces (2009) Rated R
- March 16: All About My Mother (1999) Rated R
- March 23: The Skin I Live In (2011) Rated R
Admission to these films is free.
About the Author
Robert W. Butler is a lifelong Kansas City area resident, a graduate of Shawnee Mission East High School and the William Allen White School of Journalism at the University of Kansas. For several decades he was the movie editor of the Kansas City Star; he now writes a movie-themed blog at butlerscinemascene.com. He joined the Library's Public Affairs team in 2012.