Todo sobre mi madre (1999)




(director/writer: Pedro Almodóvar; cinematographer: Affonso Beato; editor: José Salcedo; cast: Cecilia Roth (Manuela), Marisa Paredes (Huma Rojo), Candel Pena (Nina), Antonia San Juan (Agrado), Penelope Cruz (Sister Rosa), Rosa Maria Sarda (Rosa’s mother), Fernando Fernan Gomez (Rosa’s father), Toni Canto (Lola), Eloy Azorin (Esteban); Runtime: 105; Sony Pictures Classics; 1999-Spain)

One must give Almodóvar credit for getting his voice heard in the mainstream while keeping his artististic integrity intact.

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Cecilia Roth, the wonderful Argentinian-born actress, is the focal point of the film and it is fair to say that her outstanding performance tries to portray what the director wants to say about the nature of motherhood. She plays Manuela, a 38-year-old nurse coordinator in a transplant organ unit in a Madrid hospital. She is a single-parent with a son Esteban (Eloy Azorín), who wants to be a writer and is about to celebrate his 17th birthday. He is watching TV with her and the movie “All About Eve” is on, which encourages him to write in his pad “All About My Mother.”

For Esteban’s birthday present, Manuela takes him to the theater to see Tennessee Williams’ “A Streetcar Named Desire.” The enthusiastic youngster always with a notebook near him, always ready to jot down things in his journal such as his wish to know who his father is, is star-struck by the masterly performance of the aging actress playing Blanche Dubois, Huma (Marides). Esteban waits for Huma in the rain by the stage door with his mother after the show to get her autograph, and when Huma gets in a cab he chases after her but gets fatally hit by a car. This is filmed from his eye-sight view of the accident, so what the audience sees is what he saw.

Esteban’s mother is asked to donate his organs by the same doctors she works with, the ones who just completed a dry run of what it is like for family members to be asked to be organ donors. In this film there is little difference between what is real and what is fake. After Manuela agrees to donate his organs she decides to fulfill her son’s wish to find the boy’s father and she goes back to Barcelona, where she came from 18 years ago. She has lost all contact with the father while in Madrid and will try to retrace her steps.

But, before Manuela goes on the journey she must see who received her son’s heart and is relieved to see it is a decent fellow, as she watches him leave the hospital and overhears him from her hiding place gleefully talking about having a young man’s heart him in.

This is the 13th Pedro Almodóvar film I have seen; it is one that many critics say shows the aging, enfant terrible director maturing, becoming kinder and gentler, showing a capacity for making a film with more of a conventional plot and being less interested in shocking his audience as he once loved to do. But the shock is still there, enough of it to keep it from becoming a mainstream film. The shock comes from the characters Manuela will meet on her journey back to where she hung around with prostitutes and transvestites.

To visually show Manuela’s path back and forth from Barcelona to Madrid, there is a stunningly photographed tunnel looking very much like a womb with a train racing through it.

Though the film has a pungency to it, there are just too many scenes where the wit seems forced and doesn’t flow in the natural rhythm of the story. There are many references and homages to other Hollywood films and to writers, something that is both good and bad. It is good because too many films are devoid of any intellectual influences. Bad because the references are overused, making the director’s gushy homages too syrupy for my taste buds.

In Barcelona, Manuela meets again her friend Agrado (Antonia San Juan-a popular nightclub performer, who plays this role in an amusingly unrestrained manner). He is a transvestite prostitute, working in an outdoor area known as the Field, where the customers are riding around in a circle to look the odd assortment of male and female prostitutes over, a very Fellini-like scene. Symbolically it indicates that Manuela’s life is going around in circles, she is back to where she started as a prostitute. Agrado was an actor with her in an amateur production of the Tennessee Williams’s play; he was a man then but has since had breast implants and a complete makeover to look like a woman. He is upset because his transvestite lover, who used to be called Esteban but now is Lola (Canto), has just run away from him. Lola also happens to be another actor in that amateur play 18 years ago that Agrado and Manuela were in and is the father of Manuela’s child. But he doesn’t know that.

This is a story about many different themes: its subplots could take you into areas such as organ donors, AIDS, coincidences, family relationships, family values, and the affects of pop culture on the public (take note of that hilarious diaper commercial, an actual one shown on Spanish TV); but, the film’s main premises were about: praising actresses, praising motherhood, praising sexual ambiguity, and praising the kindness from strangers (tolerance of all people seems to be the strongest message emanating from the film).

The mixed feelings I got about the film come from my not being sure if this film is meant to be taken as a parody or a tragic soap opera. My perception of all the supporting characters was of them being problematic: the two transvestites; a pregnant nun with AIDS who counsels needy prostitutes; Huma, as an actress, who is in a hopeless lesbian relationship with another actress, the junkie Nina (Pena); and, all the while, this is a story about women as actresses and as mothers and as sexually ambiguous figures. There were times I didn’t know whether I was supposed to laugh at all this or cry.

This film is melodramatic in the tradition of the Douglas Sirk nuclear family romantic Rock Hudson and Dorothy Malone ones of the 1950s; but, with Almodóvar it becomes even a weepier one, one that is mostly outrageous, one whose family nature is more ambiguous and certainly not nuclear. It is a film that is paradoxical: men can be actresses also. It is one that has a character who takes the name Agrado, which means agreeable and an actress, Huma, who is influenced by Bette Davis in “All About Eve,” whose chosen name means chain-smoker. Bette influenced her totally, including her smoking habit.

The deftness of the cinematography and the array of colors displayed are simply dazzling. This film could be enjoyed solely for its bright orange, red and yellow patterns, giving the eye a startling light show to feast on, as the camera is constantly moving from one thing of beauty to another. It is a film made by someone who has the self-confidence to know who he is (a beautiful gay man) and to realize that his film will mean different things to different people: to those searching for their own identity, it could be seen how resilient the characters are who are adding body parts to change their sexual orientation. For the ones adjusting to the loss of the dearest one in their life like Manuela, after having given away the deceased’s body parts, it could be a way of accepting change. The characters in this film will find ways to adjust to their situation, these are not characters who will fall apart and have nervous breakdowns. It is worth noting that there is no criticism by the director for any of his characters, no matter how they screw things up.

What Almodóvar wishes to express, is his adoration for all women. He dedicated the film to actresses who played actresses: Bette Davis, Gena Rowlands, and Romy Schneider. The problem with all this adulation is that all the flattery has a hollow ring to it, it is just too good to be true; and, his characters are not completely believable because of this.

The film’s strength lies in the emotions of the characters; their close-ups revealing an inner strength in them that no matter what they’ve been through, they will stick together and not succumb to their overwhelming problems. Agrado, after being battered by a psychopath, gets dressed in her imitation pink Chanel dress and takes Manuela to meet the attractive Sister Rosa (Penélope Cruz) in the prostitute’s shelter. In return Agrado is consoled by the empathetic Manuela. A pregnant nun in an Almodóvar film shouldn’t be that surprising to his fans, in fact what else should they expect! The father of Sister Rosa’s child, by coincidence, is Lola, the same father of Manuela’s child. The anguished Sister Rosa will come to live in the apartment that Manuela rents and be nursed by the woman who is both a tower of strength and a fragile grieving mother.

When the older and younger women form a warm relationship, Manuela is introduced to Rosa’s so-called normal but not-knowing-how-to-love parents. Manuela first meets Rosa’s wealthy mother (Sarda), who makes fake Chagalls. This is another of the director’s themes of how the ones who are supposed to be normal and try so hard to convey that impression are really fakes; while, the ones who are considered to be oddballs in society could be the normal ones, who are at least living out their fantasies. Later on, Manuela will meet Rosa’s father (Gomez), who might have Alzheimer’s, or maybe he just doesn’t seem to remember who his daughter is. The family dog is the one who remembers her. The hurt look on Rosa’s face after her father leaves gives us a picture of her thought process that is better than dialogue; it is a moment that is worth savoring.

There is one scene when Agrado announces that the performance of “Streetcar…” will be cancelled but for those who want to stay, she will tell her life story. Of course, this clears most of the audience out, with those few remaining being mostly the young and more daring ones, the same audience that has sustained the director over the years. Agrado proceeds to tell how he got put together into a she and how much each part costs, in a comic bit that seemed, at least it did to me, that the director was trying to please his audience too much. He was trying to convince us that everyone could be who they want to be, all they have to do is pay the price for their dreams.

The actors were all splendid. I was particularly impressed by Marisa Paredes’ subtle but invigorating performance. The aging actress had a certain air about her that invigorated every scene she was in, showing how vulnerable and engaging an actress she is. Cecilia Roth was the glue that held the film together. But when the spotlight was on Marisa, what the director was trying to say about actresses had a clarity about it that didn’t seem forced.

But still, what makes an Almodóvar film special, is his eye for visual effects. I haven’t seen a more stunning visual film all year (it is comparable to Kubrick’s “Eyes Wide Shut”). I was so dazzled by the visuals that the film’s metaphors, bizarre tale, and great actors, seem to take second place to the visual splendor of the film.

As good as this film is one of the problems Almodóvar still has, is that he can’t make his outrageous characters distinguishable from caricatures. Making them seem normal by comparing them to the normal parents of Cruz’, or those normal theater patrons walking out of that childish Agrado discourse when they paid good money to see a play and not him lecture them about how he paid his dues to be the girl he is, is not really making them seem normal. This cloy act of his does not make Agrado any more compelling. What the director shows best is his unyielding love to all these strange characters, the social outcasts, those who are looked down by society. He treats them as if he was the mother, the one who loves them for what they are, who loves them as only a mother can love her own. His wish seems to be that society should also give them a chance to be loved.

One must give Almodóvar credit for getting his voice heard in the mainstream while keeping his artistic integrity intact. That is not an easy thing to do and the director has used the popular vehicle of Hollywood melodrama to add his own sense of culture and literary references to it. Despite the differences I have with his approach to the characters and their development, I still respect what he has accomplished. The film’s story line is ludicrous but the hurt the characters receive as perceived by them is real. Almodóvar retains in this work an intriguing call for the bizarre, that keeps the film from descending toward being a Hollywood one. But it also never reaches great artistic heights. There are no breakthroughs in character study. This is basically still a message film. A most amusing and diverting portrayal of the sexually ambiguous but not a great film, not a film that has more to say about his actresses except that they should be accepted for who they are.

The critical success of this film makes for strange bedfellows; the ‘chic’ Cannes crowd hooted in disappointment that the film wasn’t chosen as the best one in the festival, but cheered when Almodóvar won for best director; they now might be considered as part of the usual Almodóvar fan base of weirdos and independent-minded movie goers, a fan base that seems to be growing to accommodate a different type of enthusiast, one that is more establishment orientated.