All About My Mother
aka Todo Sobre Mi Madre
All About My Mother Spanish language. Spain/France, 1999.  Rated R.  105 minutes.

Cast: Cecilia Roth, Marisa Paredes, Penélope Cruz, Candela Peña, Antonia San Juan, Rosa Maria Sardà, Toni Cantó, Eloy Azorín
Writer: Pedro Almodóvar
Music: Alberto Iglesias
Cinematographer: Affonso Beato
Producer: Agustín Almodóvar
Director: Pedro Almodóvar

Grade: A- Review by Jeff Vorndam

I  would rather present a slide show of stills from All About My Mother than sully it with a written review. However, because I get paid $100 a word from the benevolent site administrator, pictures be damned and hearken ye to paragraph upon paragraph of unevocative description. It’s disheartening that I cannot convey the passion displayed in every moment of All About My Mother. Director Pedro Almodóvar clearly loves his subjects – women, mothers, actresses, and actresses who play actresses. Each frame gushes with beauty. The film would be garish if it weren’t supported by worthy characters whose experiences inspire anguish, hope, and laughter. Instead, All About My Mother is bold and lively filmmaking, which plumbs jewels from cinema’s past and builds on them to resonate in new directions. Cecilia Roth and Eloy Azorin

The heart of All About My Mother is Cecilia Roth. She plays Manuela, a nurse at an organ-transplant clinic who acts in medical training videos detailing the organ-transplant process (she plays the distraught mother). Manuela possesses the beauty of experience. Her hardships are worn on her face, but rather than projecting a beaten-down portrait, Roth imbues the sad knowingness in her eyes with a tremendous compassion and vitality. It’s a performance that anchors the film perfectly, as she embodies the remarkable traits in women that Almodóvar finds fascinating. Manuela is the mother of Esteban (Eloy Azorín), half her age and just turning eighteen. For his birthday, she gives him Truman Capote’s Music for Chameleons, from which he reads, “When God hands you a gift, he also hands you a whip; and the whip is intended solely for self-flagellation." Esteban is a budding writer who is given the inspiration to write a piece on his mother called “Todo sobre mi madre” after he watches Joseph Mankiewicz’s classic All About Eve with Manuela. Their bond is so close that they seem almost to be one. When Esteban asks Manuela to grant him a birthday wish to know more about his absent father, she refuses. The time is not right, she feels. In reality, she has run away from her past and never wants to look back.

On Esteban’s birthday, Manuela and Esteban go to see a production of A Streetcar Named Desire starring the diva Huma Rojo (Marisa Paredes) as Blanche. Like All About Eve, Tennessee Williams’ play is a running theme throughout the movie, particularly its closing line, “I have always depended upon the kindness of strangers.” Esteban is enraptured by Rojo’s performance, and he convinces Manuela to stay with him after the show (in a torrential downpour) to obtain the actress' autograph and speak with her (shades of Anne Baxter in All About Eve). Rojo is in a hurry though and is off in her car before Esteban can reach her, though she notices him through her window as she speeds off. Esteban is left out in the middle of the street. We can see what will happen next, yet it is no less powerful for our knowledge. In a stunning scene, Esteban is struck by a car and killed. The camera rests beside his body and the rain pounds down. Manuela appears in the frame, overwhelmed with grief, her bright red overcoat accentuating her tragedy in its incongruity. She doesn’t learn he’s dead until she’s at the hospital. The most heartbreaking scene in the movie is when the doctors must inform her that her son has died. Having acted the grieving parent for the video production so many times, Manuela knows as soon as they pull up their chairs. Her pre-emptive anguished cry stabs outward as she realizes she is now alone. Marisa Peredes and Cecilia Roth

These first twenty-five minutes are perfect, but I wondered where the film would go from there. A more predictable film would languish in ennui, as the mother would desolately try to relate to others in the absence of her son. Or perhaps she would secretly follow the young man who receives Esteban’s heart transplant. Instead, Almodovar wisely chooses a change of locale for Manuela. She leaves Madrid for Barcelona, the city she fled 18 years before when she carried Esteban inside her. Manuela goes to look for Esteban’s father, formerly named Esteban also, but who now goes by Lola since ‘he’ became a ‘she.’ If Manuela cannot indulge her son’s last wish to meet his father, at least she can let his father (whom she describes as the “worst of a man, and the worst of a woman”) meet their son. She looks for Lola at a hang-out for prostitutes called “The Field,” where she runs into the delightfully outrageous La Agrado (Antonia San Juan), an old friend of theirs from the whoring days. Agrado, whose name means “agreeable” as she often points out, is a transsexual prostitute who provides the film’s comic relief and delivers its linchpin monologue.
The Big Picture

Agrado introduces Manuela to Sister Rosa (Penélope Cruz), a nun who works at a shelter. Like Agrado and Manuela, she has her problems, and the three bond in scenes of dialogue that Almodovar theorizes is the essence of life–the ability for women to align with each other. As Manuela begins building a surrogate family of sorts, she runs into Huma Rojo again. She becomes an assistant to her, as Rojo and her lover Nina share a tempestuous relationship that occasionally requires Manuela to substitute for Nina’s Stella in the production of Streetcar. It turns out that Manuela and Lola had played Stella and Stanley in Streetcar twenty years earlier, and her return to the role and its signature line about the kindness of strangers, now carry a greater meaning. Almodovar’s larger meaning is the appreciation of a woman’s capacity to act in everyday life. She is always acting, playing roles, be it mother or lover. Her acting keeps her grounded during tragedy. It provides a buoy for others to cling to, and a method by which to regroup.

Though All About My Mother, in the course of its story, takes us through familiar conventions like the death of a loved one and the birth of a new baby, it manages to feel new. Almodovar tells his story in a way that convinced me it was the first time I’d heard it. When it ended, I wanted more. In retrospect though, the film ends on a perfect note. The key line in Agrado’s wonderful monologue onstage the night the cast is unavailable is, “a woman is more authentic the more she looks like what she has dreamed for herself.” This is not simply in respect to her physical self, but also applies to her emotional terrain. When the curtain closes on All About My Mother, Manuela has crafted herself into a mother once again, a part she was born to play.

Review © December 1999 by AboutFilm.Com and the author.
Images © 1999 Sony Pictures Classics. All Rights Reserved.