by Miguel E. Rodriguez

Director: Pedro Almodóvar
Cast: Cecilia Roth, Marisa Paredes, Penelope Cruz, Antonia San Juan
My Rating: 8/10
Rotten Tomatometer: 98% Certified Fresh

PLOT: A single mom fulfills her son’s last wish by going on a search for her estranged husband, whom she has not seen since before her son was born.

Whatever you might think personally of director Pedro Almodóvar’s films, you can’t say he doesn’t have range and/or versatility.  In one of his previous films, Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown [1988], he takes potentially dark material (a suicidal woman’s quest to find out why her lover abruptly left her) and turns it into farce (police officers accidentally eat drug-laced gazpacho intended for another suicide attempt).  In All About My Mother, winner of 1999’s Oscar for Best Foreign Film, Almodóvar takes potentially farcical material (a mother searches for her estranged husband, who happens to be a transvestite named Lola, and makes friends with a pregnant nun) and turns it into solid, albeit soapy, melodrama that is rather unique in its matter-of-fact treatment of its transvestite characters and situations.

Manuela (Cecilia Roth), a single mother and part-time actor, takes her teenaged son, Esteban, to see a local production of A Streetcar Named Desire in Spanish.  (The night before, they watched All About Eve together, so she’s clearly teaching him right.)  Esteban is so taken with the performance of Huma Rojo (Marisa Paredes), the lead actress playing Blanche, that he waits outside the stage door to get her autograph.  Huma absently gets in a cab and drives away, Esteban runs after her, and is struck dead by a car in traffic.  In a scene of poignant irony, Manuela must sign some official forms to release her son’s body as an organ donor, just days after portraying a grieving mother in a hospital video about…becoming an organ donor.

Manuela discovers her son’s journal in which he is literally writing all about his mother, and he mentions his sadness because he never knew his father, and his mother has told him nothing about his father his entire life.  So begins her quest to locate the long-lost father, whom she refers to as either Esteban or Lola, depending on the context.

After she travels across Spain to Barcelona, her first encounter is with an old friend, a transvestite hooker named Agrado, which roughly translates to “liking” or “agreeable.”  Agrado helps Manuela find a job through the social services of a nunnery, where they meet Rosa (Penelope Cruz), a nun dedicated to assisting hookers of all sorts escape their scandalous lives and find wholesome work elsewhere.  Rosa talks about leaving soon to go to El Salvador to assist in similar work there…but alas, she soon finds out she is pregnant herself.

Meanwhile, Manuela also connects with Huma, the actress whose autograph her son was seeking.  Soon she is hired as an assistant and even, through circumstantially suspicious events, manages to appear onstage as an emergency substitute for Nina, the actress portraying Stella, who is also having an on-again/off-again fling with Huma…

And so on and so on.  At times, All About My Mother feels a little too much like a telenovela, those famous Spanish-language soap operas whose plotlines pack more melodrama into one episode than Dynasty did in an entire season.  But as wacky as the situations got, the movie never gets out of hand, so to speak.  It never wallows in the trashy elements, like a John Waters or Russ Meyer movie, for example.  It simply presents the situations, and the characters face it, deal with it, and move on with their lives.  If I find the situations trashy or overly sensational, that’s my problem, at least in Almodóvar’s world.

That’s one of the charms of this film.  There is a running gag where Agrado, the transvestite hooker – pre-op, by the way – gets hit on by both men and women, and neither gender seems to care about her seemingly incompatible sets of equipment, if you get my drift.  (The guy even offers to do to her what she would normally do to him.  I don’t remember the exact line, but at one point the guy says something like, “Hey, if you think it will relax me, I’ll try anything.”)  In virtually any other movie, that scene would be milked for laughs, or it might be the defining scene for the Agrado character.  But instead, it showcases the…I’m not sure what word I’m looking for here…the “non-issue” attitude that everyone in the movie has to transvestites, gays, lesbians, or any other sexual orientation that might otherwise be a distraction in most American films.  Manuela’s husband is himself a transvestite hooker.  Okay, she accepts it, everyone accepts it, even Rosa the pregnant nun accepts it, and let’s get on with the story.

There is a remarkable scene where Agrado has gotten a job as an assistant to Huma, the actress, and for various reasons a performance has to be cancelled.  Agrado goes in front of the curtain, informs the audience, and offers to tell her life story as compensation for anyone who wants to stay.  She proceeds to itemize every bit of cosmetic surgery she has had done to herself in the past few years in order to become…herself.  Eyes, nose, breasts, jaw reduction…all so she can be more authentic.  “And one can’t be stingy with these things, because you are more authentic the more you resemble what you’ve dreamed of being.”

And then the movie moves on.  It’s a bravura moment that might have been the centerpiece of another film, but in this one, it’s just a dash of character color that deepens everything around it.

I should also mention the lighting style throughout nearly the entire film.  On a few occasions, we are treated to scenes from that stage production of Streetcar, and we clearly see the theatrical lighting.  But in many, if not ALL interior scenes throughout the rest of the movie, the lighting is roughly similar to that of a stage production, or maybe a TV production.  Nothing is lit like I have come to subconsciously expect.  Instead, it all has a kind of heightened reality to it, or maybe “un-reality”, which paradoxically makes it more engaging to watch instead of being distracting.  I think I’m being a little contradictory, but it’s the best description I can provide.

Pedro Almodóvar has been directing shorts and feature films since 1974 and shows no signs of slowing down.  I can’t promise I’ll eventually watch everything he’s ever done, but of the two films of his I’ve seen, this one is my favorite so far.  There’s an abundant love of theater, theatricality, and especially for his characters in his work.  You or I may not like all of them, but he doesn’t seem to care.  Almodóvar seems to be arguing there is humanity in everyone, not exactly a groundbreaking message, but certainly one that was still not widely accepted, even as recently as 1999, and even less so today, unfortunately.  He’s saying, “Look at someone, and don’t see their differences.  See them.  And get on with your life.”

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