All About My Mother March 1, 2019
Antonia San Juan
Rosa Maria Sardà
Fernando Fernán Gómez
1 Hr., 41 Mins.
n attempt to get an autograph proves tragic in All About My Mother (1999), a bold but sincere melodrama. In celebration of his 17th birthday, budding writer Esteban (Eloy Azorin) attends a revival of A Streetcar Named Desire with his mom, Manuela (Cecilia Roth). It is a special occasion, not just because the play is one of Esteban’s favorites, but also because it stars Huma Rojo (Marisa
Parades), a leonine actress whom he loves. When the curtains close, Esteban decides that he must get her autograph. Manuela knows it’s a long shot, and would prefer to go home. But it’s the boy’s birthday. What could it hurt? All they will have to do is wait outside the theatre a few minutes.
Pouring rain and traffic, though, are a dangerous combination. After he sees Huma get into a taxi, Esteban knocks on her door, hoping to see his dream through. But Huma is unresponsive — perhaps believing the young man outside poses a threat of some kind — and drives off. Moments later, Esteban is hit by a car, and dies.
In All About My Mother, which is the writer and director Pedro Almodóvar’s 13th feature-length movie, Esteban’s death sets in motion a series of life-altering events for Manuela. Immediately after the funeral, she quits her job, departs her native Argentina, and goes to Barcelona in search of Esteban’s father, a transgender woman named Lola (Toni Cantó) from whom she is estranged.
Several interruptions prolong the trip. Manuela restarts her once-close friendship with Agrado (Antonia San Juan), an amiable sex worker; she gets involved in the life of Rosa (Penélope Cruz), a nun who has been impregnated by Lola; and she befriends and briefly works for Huma, who feels awful for the oblique role she played in Esteban’s death.
By movie 13, a great many filmmakers — if even still culturally germane by then — have hit their stride, if not a wall. A comfortability with their sensibility, and a commercial understanding as to what to expect from them, bubbles up. To say a movie like All About My Mother was new at the time for Almodóvar isn’t exactly right. It was not so much a redefining work (partly because his previous foray, 1997’s Live Flesh, was comparatively downcast) as it was an evolutionary step. From his debut, Pepi, Luci, Bom (1980), on, Almodóvar’s projects tended to either be outré melodramas or left-of-center sex comedies, always with a brashly colorful visual style. All About My Mother, rather than aiming for reinvention or apathetic recapitulation, grabbed onto his filmic sensibilities and enlarged their hearts.
For more than a decade, ideas of pointedly indulging in the heartfelt didn't seem so feasible: Almodóvar chiefly worked with the zany. Characters in previous features would reflect outlandish tableaux and narratives. Staples included, but were not limited to, improbably sinful nuns, glamorous drug addicts, vengeful other women, aggressively libidinous hunks, and tragic women fashioned in the style of an archetypal Joan Crawford heroine.
The earlier half of Almodóvar’s oeuvre comprised movies so stylized, and so emotionally othered, that they, to me, have long-seemed the most obvious modern-day descendants of the Douglas Sirk-helmed soap operas of the 1950s, or the mischievous black comedies Luis Buñuel churned out in the ‘60s and ‘70s. All are accented with the light satire and barefaced farcicality of the best features from John Waters.
But beginning with Live Flesh, and, for the most part, onward, absurdity as a preeminent aesthetic device seemed to come in second and then in third for Almodóvar. (His latest movie, the classically doleful Julieta, from 2016, was almost entirely gloomy.) His photographic fetishes and knockabout set design would remain, and so would his predilection for writing lop-sided characters. But while previous works seemed to be lightly making fun of themselves, a seriousness would soon pervade, even with an underlying comedic touch.
This is especially true for All About My Mother. Though certain moments come alive with their humor and warmth — particularly during the middle act, when the aforementioned characters get together and simply chat — it is a movie made more in the vein of a play like the much-discussed A Streetcar Named Desire. It is emotionally clamorous to the point of being ethereally so, but everything doesn’t constantly threaten to fly off the rails in the way the majority of Almodóvar’s preceding movies did. There is a noticeable conviction in his writing and direction.
I find All About My Mother, which I saw for the first time a few years ago during a long-lasting Almodóvar kick, moving. It efficiently and believably spins a story about a woman rebuilding her life after unexpected tragedy, and cleverly inserts secondary characters in a way that makes their existences feel urgent rather than solely in service of the lead. Some of its politics can be clumsy. The primarily LGBTQIA+ characters, who surround the straight and cisgender Manuela, could be regarded as accessories, often there in the name of comic relief and, more toward the conclusion, fodder for a tragic climax. The arcs for Rosa and Lola, who have AIDs, are pretty harsh, and arguably treat their demises as something akin to inevitabilities.
Over the years, Almodóvar’s habitual filmic muchness has become a pitfall just as much as it’s continued being an enduringly thrilling feature. His decades-strong dedication to doing everything all at once unapologetically and insolently is exciting to behold, but his characterizations and narratives haven’t always stayed quite so electric. All About My Mother speaks to this: It’s excellent — emotional, witty, and touching, especially — but with a few caveats. B+