There are two Spanish filmmakers who have made the largest impact on international cinema, who could be considered the most “recognizable”. The first is the surrealist filmmaker Luis Buñuel, who made a vast number of films including Belle de Jour, The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, and Viridiana. The other name is Almodóvar. Pedro Almodóvar has caught attention from international film critics and film goers alike since the 198o’s saw the release of Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown. Almodovar’s other credits include High Heels, Volver, The Skin I Live In, and Talk To Her, the final film being one of the rare foreign-language films to win an Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay.
All About My Mother is Almodóvar’s 1999 feature, which won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Feature. The film chronicles the experiences of Manuela (masterfully portrayed by Cecilia Roth) and her experiences in Barcelona after the death of her son. His perception of her colors film, giving the film it’s title, as we learn all of the elements of Manuela’s youth that she kept from her son. Almodóvar weaves us a lush tapestry of characters that explores the many facets of womanhood: Rosa, the troubled nun (Penelope Cruz), an actress in the middle of a run as Blanche in A Streetcar Named Desire (Marisa Paredes), and a vibrant transsexual sex worker Agrado (Antonia San Juan). We explore the way these women perform the certain aspects of their life that believe they need to stay alive.
The performances of the women vary from physical alterations to secret keeping. The stars of Streetcar perform their roles in the play, along with the facade of a healthy, fulfilling romantic relationship. Agrado gives a delightful monologue about the amount of plastic surgery she has undergone to become truly “authentic.” It should be no surprise that it is Manuela who performs the most complex and wide array of roles: the first as a surrogate mother to Rosa, and the second (and more relevant) as a woman grappling with supreme loss by caring for whatever lost soul she can find.
Manuela is a strong a central character as it is possible to find. It is almost without choice that she leaves Madrid for Barcelona after the loss of her son, under the guise of telling his estranged father what happened to him. At first, it seems like she is running away from her troubles, from the memory of her son. But the more time she spends in Barcelona, the more we see that she isn’t moving away- she’s moving on. The few moments when she breaks down don’t seem like a moment of weakness, but a moment of relief. Cecilia Roth brings life and energy to the role, elevating an already great film to, as my sister’s boyfriend called it, a “remarkable” one.
One of my favorite things about Almodóvar’s body of work (at least the films of his that I have seen) is his use of other works of art in his films. In Talk To Her, the themes of the film are all laid out to us in the opening moments of the film with a dance choreographed by Pina Bausch. In All About My Mother, there are two works of art that Almodóvar piggy-backs off of to create a rich backdrop of thematic content- the film All About Eve, and Tennessee Williams’s A Streetcar Named Desire. His use of these two works not only elevates his own film, but the other two. By commenting on the way that these two works of art can effect people (especially women) he is able to add more layers to both of them. He’s not lazily referencing the works as a way to more easily discuss his themes: instead, he uses them to make a much more complex film.
The film ends with a heartfelt dedication “To all actresses who have played actresses, to all women who act, to men who act and become women, to all the people who want to be mothers… to my mother.” Each group mentioned in the dedication is seen in one of the vibrant characters in the film, each of them treated with nothing but love from their director. People make mistakes, people hurt one another, but there are no monsters in All About My Mother. At it’s core, this is a film about personal strength- the strength to move on, the strength to be yourself, the strength to forgive those who have hurt us.