There’s a title card at the end of “All About My Mother” where director Pedro Almodóvar dedicates his film to “all the people who have wanted to be mothers”; the fact that he doesn’t say “women” but “people” is enough to capture the essence of this wonderful work of art. Trying to do justice to her son’s last wish, Manuela travels to Barcelona looking for her “son’s heart” and reveal the whole story to his father. Tinged with overcoming melancholy and heartache, Almodóvar’s movie deals with the roles we have to play in life.
There’s a title card at the end of All About My Mother where writer/director Pedro Almodóvar dedicates his film to “all the people who have wanted to be mothers”; the fact that he doesn’t say “women” but “people” is enough to capture the essence of this wonderful work of art.
Manuela (Cecilia Roth) is a nurse and works in charge of organ donation at a Madrid hospital, her son Esteban (Eloy Azorín) wants to become a writer and tells her he’s writing a story about her. On the day of his seventeenth birthday he asks her who his father was; a visibly stricken Manuela tells him she’ll tell him the whole story later, first they will go to the theatre to celebrate his birthday. After the performance, of “A Streetcar Named Desire”, is over, Esteban wants to ask for the lead actress Huma Rojo's (Marisa Paredes) autograph. He is run over by a car and dies. Trying to do justice to her son’s last wish, Manuela travels to Barcelona looking for her “son’s heart” and reveal the whole story to his father.
Tinged with overcoming melancholy and heartache, Almodóvar’s movie deals with the roles we have to play in life.
Some women are actresses; when someone asks Manuela if she can act she replies “I’m a good liar” and this works as both an affirmation and a puzzle. Others also acknowledge the importance of actresses in their lives, Huma Rojo (Paredes) confesses she began smoking because she wanted to be like Bette Davis. It’s suggested that she also emulates Davis’ infamous diva qualities while borrowing from the characters she plays onstage.
During the play in the film she plays Blanche Dubois (made famous onscreen by Vivien Leigh in the 1951 version of A Streetcar Named Desire, and like the doomed Southern heroine chooses to accept kindness from strangers, because she’s perhaps too scared to take, or expect it from the people she already knows.
Other women are nuns; like Sister Rosa (Penélope Cruz) an almost saintly member of a local order who dreams of helping people in the Third World even if it means defying her possessive mother’s (Rosa María Sardà) wishes or risking her own life.There are some women who are whores; like Agrado (Antonia San Juan) a transsexual prostitute who named herself that way because of her overpowering wish to make life agreeable for others. Then there are men who become women, women who fall in love with other women, women in need of mothers…and before long, Almodóvar has made it clear for us that at any moment the actress can become the nun, or the whore become the mother.
A lot has been made about the director’s ease at writing female characters that are real despite being extracted from some of the most exaggerated situations and sharing melodramatic back stories.What he does to keep his stories from falling all over is use the emotional truths he finds at their core. In All About My Mother he delivers a love song to his mother (and the overall mother figure) while asking where have all the men gone in this world?
What any other filmmaker would’ve shaped into resentment, Pedro works into a feeling of communion and, to an extent, joy.
These women might not have men in their lives (and if they do - like Rosa’s father and Manuela’s son, they are barely there: one of them is dead and the other is afflicted with a memory loss condition) but the director doesn’t turn them into extremist feminist figures. As in most of his filmography the lack of major male roles only serves to affirm the fact that their absence sometimes becomes omnipresence. And disguised as a “woman’s picture” that recalls Hollywood classics (like Who Wants to Marry a Millionaire which is referenced in the screenplay and of course The Women) the film is actually a profound essay that questions gender roles.
A key character named Lola (Toni Cantó) is referred to as having “the worst of a woman and the worst of a man” and as the parallels between the sexes are drawn closer (it’s not a coincidence that all of the lead actresses have very strong, almost masculine, features) it’s surprising that instead of being left with an identity crisis (ignited by a slight subplot that “borrows” from All About Eve) we’re witnesses of a self affirming masterwork. Balancing delicately between self parody, soap opera and tragedy, in the same way we travel from a Fellinian road filled with prostitutes and their customers to a warm apartment that seems to have been decorated by Rainer Werner Fassbinder, the movie is able to end with a lasting impression of emotional authenticity.
Because as Agrado says in a brilliant monologue, “you are more authentic the more you resemble what you've dreamed of being”.