Random Review: All About My Mother (Pedro Almodóvar 1999)

One of Spanish director Pedro Almodóvar’s most well-known films, All About My Mother is an offbeat melodrama with a huge heart. It tells the story of Manuela (Cecilia Roth), a nurse and single mother of sweet-natured Esteban (Eloy Azorin). Mother and son live contended lives of mutual devotion, watching old films together and discussing Esteban’s dreams of being a writer, until his seventeenth birthday. On a trip to the theatre to see A Streetcar Named Desire, Esteban runs to approach the lead actress Huma Rojo (Marisa Paredes) for her autograph and is run over and killed.
In their final, poignant conversation before he died, Manuela promised to finally tell Esteban “all about your father.” But the film soon makes it clear that women will take centre page, and the film will, as its title suggests, be a tribute to mothers everywhere. Indeed, when a grief-stricken Manuela goes to Barcelona to try to break the news to Esteban’s father, it soon emerges that she’s a trans sex worker, Lola. She proves hard to track down, but Manuela soon meets a host of different characters in Barcelona, including her old friend and Lola’s colleague Agrado (Antonia San Juan), Huma, whose production of A Streetcar Named Desire has moved to Barcelona and who is in a destructive relationship with her heroin-addicted co-star Nina (Candela Peña), and Rosa (Penelope Cruz), a sweet-natured nun with problems of her own. Each of these women represents the different roles and identities women can assume in society – including the identity of gender itself – and how a whole life can go into that role. But each of them is also a complex, unique personality, and together, they begin to help each other with their problems, and to help Manuela heal.

All About My Mother is self-consciously exaggerated in its number of plots and level of angst – the kind of gloriously hyper-real film where the throaway dialogue is stuff like “I don’t want her around to watch me forging Chagalls”. Unsurprisingly, it’s a film in love with other, equally melodramatic films, books and plays, in particular it’s two much-referenced touchstones, A Streetcar Named Desire and All About Eve. Manuela was an amateur actress as a young woman, and at a training exercise at the hospital she role-plays as a grieving widow who must be convinced to donate her husband’s organs – a role which, poignantly, she will later enact for real after Esteban’s accident. Unlike other Almodóvar films such as Carne Tremula, it doesn’t have that uniquely rich and defined colour palette to go with the over-the-top tone – some of the outdoor shots in particular have a distractingly grainy quality. However, the writing and the acting – particularly Roth’s heart-wrenching performance – is of a universally terrific quality, bursting with the gentle humour and subtle detail that gives the film real emotional depth. The picture at the top of this post is taken from a scene where the four heroines begin to relax together and share their woes. It encapsulates the film – a warm, engrossing and unique celebration of real and substitute sister and motherhood.

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