All About My Mother
Starring: Cecilia Roth, Marisa Paredes, Penelope Cruz, Antonia San Juan

Pedro Almodovar

Writing credits: Pedro Almodovar
Distributor: Sony Pictures Classics
Rated: R
Official Site: Click Here
IMDB Page: Click Here
  (USA 1999)

Films can entertain, films can enthrall, films can amuse. Rarely, though, are they as mesmerizing and invigorating as ALL ABOUT MY MOTHER, the best film in years from Spain's greatest living director, Pedro Almodovar. Like an exquisitely sumptuous meal accompanied by a smooth wine, Almodovar's paean to women is fulfilling, polished, and utterly satisfying.

Almodovar is a near-legend in certain circles -- his early films established his reputation as a rebel auteur with a bent for both the queer (double meaning intended) and his odd mix of the outrageous and the fabulous. The pansexual characters caught up in situations just beyond reality's edge always betrayed a humanity that belied their cartoonish circumstances. Whether portraying gay Islamic terrorists (Labyrinth of Passion), transexual mothers (Law Of Desire), guilt-ridden bullfighters who eroticize killing (Matador), or daughters who marry their mother's lovers (High Heels), Almodovar never forgets his characters' emotional vitality and honesty.

Almodovar took a turn in the mid-1990's, moving his effervescent style to dramatic material. Most of these efforts have been fascinating, especially 1995's The Flower Of My Secret (which explored an author's desperate attempts to change the course of her life) and 1998's Live Flesh (an occasionally overwrought what-if spectacle about an accidental shooting -- featuring the Academy Award-nominated star of Before Night Falls, Javier Bardem). These clearly more mature films kept the wacky spirit and kaleidoscopic art direction of his earlier work, but something seemed lost in the transition -- the films, moving as they are, seem a bit cold, detached. It's as if someone had told Spain's cinematic bad boy to grow up, and unfortunately, he listened.

But worry no more. Both an expansion of Almodovar's famous candy-colored vision and a maturation of his ingenious directorial style, ALL ABOUT MY MOTHER is a celebration of women -- their power, their vulnerability, their beauty, and their perseverance. Almodovar, who is perhaps most famous in America for his comedy Women On The Verge Of A Nervous Breakdown (and for launching the international careers of Antonio Banderas and Penelope Cruz), has found the missing ingredient in his bright, offbeat mixtures -- restraint. The characters are more fully developed, the plot more well-thought, and the direction more carefully constructed than in any of his previous efforts. Every moment is a privilege to watch; one scene may have you laughingly lightheaded, the next gut-wrenchingly serious. In some previous efforts, Almodovar has seemed almost manic, obsessing over every element, trying to fill all every inch of empty space in the frame. In ALL ABOUT MY MOTHER, he finds great joy in calm serenity, or quiet moments or silence. It is as if he's learned that, sometimes, a single teardrop means more than a flood of tears.

Featuring one of the most original plotlines to ever grace the screen, it follows Manuela (Cecilia Roth), a single mother whose son is killed in a car accident on his 17th birthday. Overcome with grief, she leaves Madrid for Barcelona, looking for her son's long-lost father. The father, wouldn't you know, is now transgendered, and goes by the name of Lola. While searching for Lola, Manuela befriends an unlikely set of women: Agrado (Antonia San Juan), a transgendered prostitute; Rosa, a young volunteer who dreams of working with the poor in El Salvador; and Huma (Marisa Paredes), a famous stage actress who was admired by Manuela's son before he died. Their journeys are individual but also ingeniously connected, with Manuela serving as both the compass and the foundation for their intertwining lives.

When making a film that celebrates womanhood, it helps, of course, to surround yourself with some of the best actresses in the world. And Almodovar's no dummy. Cecilia Roth is mesmerizing as Manuela, rooted firmly in the present while re-evaluating both the past and the future. Her ability is evident in the first moments. When Manuela sighs as she attends the pregnant Rosa, it becomes much more than a sigh; the sigh is filled with such knowing melancholy that, wordlessly, she says all she needs to about the aching emotional pain she feels.

Even better than Roth, if that's possible, is Marisa Paredes. Capturing both the larger-than-life dramatics of Huma, a grandiose stage star past her prime, is only part of Paredes' feast for the senses. In her quieter moments -- dealing with her junkie lover, or recognizing her own complicity in Manuela's son's demise -- Paredes shows us every wrinkle, every flaw, every conflicted memory. In a better world than this one, she would have received an Academy Award.

The photos on this site are in black and white, but the film is vibrantly colorful. But even that may not express the little victories that Almodovar consistently provides. Part of the joy in this must-see picture are the suprising bonds the characters develop. Almodovar captures not only the solidarity of women, but their ability to support one another without question, to love and accept each others' failures and strengths with equal measures of humanity and understanding. It's a symphony for the cinema, and one of the greatest pleasures you'll have on your VCR. Drench yourself in this film.

- Gabriel Shanks

Review text copyright © 2001 Gabriel Shanks. All rights reserved; printed and published with the author's permission on Cozzi Fan Tutti. Reproduction of text in whole or in part in any form or in any medium without express written permission of Cozzi fan Tutti or the author is prohibited.


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