Sunday, March 07, 2010

All About My Mother

Posted as part of Operation 101010
Category: Eurovisions (Spain) / In category: 3 of 10 / Overall: 18 of 100

The opening scenes of Pedro Almodovar’s Oscar-winning ‘All About My Mother’ sketch out a close and affectionate relationship between single mother Manuela (Cecilia Roth) and her 17-year-old son Esteban (Eloy Azorin). Manuela works as a nurse; the studious and intellectual Esteban harbours ambitions of being a writer. Esteban is a fan of old movies – he and Manuela watch a TV screening of ‘All About Eve’ – and has a passion for theatre. For his birthday, Manuela takes him to a performance of ‘A Streetcar Named Desire’, headlined by his favourite actress Huma Rojo (Marisa Paredes). Esteban has one other request for his birthday – he wants to know, notwithstanding that Manuela has stringently withheld the details from him thus far, what became of his father.

For the first ten minutes, the sensitive Esteban seems to be developing into that rarest of things in the Almodovar canon: a male protagonist (‘Talk to Her’ and ‘Broken Embraces’ are the only Almodovars I can think of with male protagonists – and even then the narratives are set in motion by the women in their lives), then tragedy strikes and Manuela, faced with the worst thing that can happen to a parent, is forced to reassess her life.

Relocating from Madrid to Barcelona, Manuela goes in search of her errant husband – a transsexual who now goes by the name of Lola (Toni Canto). She meets an old friend from way back when (also transsexual), truck driver turned hooker Agrado (Antonia San Juan). [Insert your own trucking-to-hooking gag or double entrende about delivering a load.] Agrado introduces Manuela to her friend Hermana (Penelope Cruz), a good-natured but sadly na├»ve young twenty-something who works at a women’s centre. Hermana and Manuela have something in common: they’ve both had relationships with Lola, who left both of them without realising they were pregnant. Manuela, though, had the luckier escape: Lola is now HIV positive, and has passed the virus to Hermana. Still, a friendship develops between the two women. Between Agrado and Hermana, Manuela gains an ersatz family to fill the void left by her son.

Manuela also re-encounters Huma, who is touring with ‘A Streetcar Named Desire’. Huma is playing the part of Blanche du Bois, with her lover Nina in the role of Stella. Nina is unpredictable and driven by a drug habit; when she temporarily deserts Huma, Manuela steps in. Having played Stella in an amateur production years ago (it was there she met the pre-sex-change Lola; he was playing Kowalski), Manuela takes Nina’s place to some acclaim. Later, when circumstances dictate that neither Nina or Huma can go on, Agrado takes everyone’s place and performs an impromptu one-woman show.

The themes and narratives of ‘A Streetcar Named Desire’ and ‘All About Eve’ are woven into ‘All About My Mother’ to such a degree that the highest kudos are due to Almodovar for achieving a nigh on impossible feat: crafting a supremely entertaining film that doesn’t necessarily require familiarity with the Tennessee Williams play or the 1950 Bette Davis-starrer directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz. (Although it goes without saying that a basic knowledge of these two works adds layers to the construction, subtext and appreciation of Almodovar’s film.)

For a film so character-driven and picaresque – there’s no real plot, simply a wryly-observed overlapping of the characters’ relationships – the pace is sprightly. Almodovar keeps track of a melange of connections, coincidences, ironies and mirrored scenes with such dexterity that it would be easy to underestimate how complex things become. For instance: at one point, Manuela is acting as surrogate mother to Hermana (pregnant and terminally ill by Manuela’s transsexual former husband) while jointly fulfilling the role of companion and co-star – ie. surrogate for Nina on both counts – to Huma, acting the role of Stella, a character heavily pregnant for most of the play, thereby reliving the circumstances in which she met her husband as well as being costumed to appear pregnant when she has recently lost her only child. When you break it down, this is melodrama so top-heavy that even Douglas Sirk would have backed off, shaking his head and going “no waaaaaaaaay”; Almodovar, by whatever directorial alchemy it is that he seems to have been gifted, turns in a light, frothy concoction that neither overburdens its audience or condescends to its characters.

‘All About My Mother’ is about many things – loss, acceptance, reconciliation, friendship, motherhood – but its overriding theme is a celebration of the feminine and accordingly it showcases some of Almodovar’s most productive director/actor relationships: Cecilia Roth makes the fifth of her six appearances for him, Marisa Paredes the fourth of five and Penelope Cruz appears for the second time (following a space but pivotal role in ‘Live Flesh’) and has since appeared in ‘Volver’ and ‘Broken Embraces’. It’s Almodovar himself who puts it best in the dedication that closes the film:

“To Bette Davis, Gena Rowlands, Romy Schneider. To all actresses who have played actresses, to all women who act, to men who act and become women, to all people who want to become mothers. To my mother.”

1 comment:

Adam said...

I understand that I'm very very ver late to the game on this, but Penelope Cruz's character is named Rosa. "Hermana" means "sister," so she's "Hermana Rosa" because she's a nun.