“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.”
Since his debut now forty years ago, PEPI, LUCI, BOM (1980), influential Spanish filmmaker Pedro Almodovar has caught the attention of devoted cinephiles and general audiences alike. From his eight-film partnership with Antonio Bandaras to an idiosyncratic style with combining palatable melodrama and harsh color palettes, Almodovar is widely celebrated without hesitation or a divisive film to his name. The man has two Oscars, (which is not the end all be all but hey its Pedro Almodovar) one for TALK TO HER (2002), winning best original screenplay and ALL ABOUT MY MOTHER (1999), receiving his first best foreign film statue.
The movie now joins the criterion family and focuses on A single mother (played by the sensational Cecilia Roth, who previously worked with Almodovar in LABYRINTH OF PASSION (1982)) in Madrid sees her only son die on his birthday as he runs to seek an actress’s autograph. Stricken with grief, she returns to her homeland of Barcelona to tell the father about the son he never knew he had. Manuela is then roped into the life of a nun, Lola, (Penelope Cruz) who treats sex workers after horrific acts of violence and is recently diagnosed with AIDS with a three-month-old pregnancy– things could look better for Lola.
Manuela then sees Lola as a coping muscle for her, someone to nurture and love after her sons’ death and losing that maternal ability. Going as far as to keep Lola’s baby after her untimely death, Almodovar believes in the power of longing. Longing not only for the chance to be a mom again but the loss of a career. After all, we learn in the beginning that Manuela was a successful stage actress with constant callbacks to her admiration of the stage production of Street Car Named Desire, the play turned Marlon Brando film. Giving up the stage to become a mom, the movie knows she doesn’t deserve this tragedy only after doing right by her son.
Almodovar’s latest masterwork, PAIN AND GLORY (2019), has been on my mind recently for many reasons. One is a scene between Salvator (Antonio Bandaras) and his mom, which acts as reconciliation and apology to her as he fears he is not the son he thinks she wanted all her life. Becoming even more emotionally poignant as we see his childhood unfold, now after seeing ALL ABOUT MY MOTHER, the mother and son relationships become linked together. We don’t spend much time with either but it makes it even better, further emphasizing the feeling that the man and mom in subject time together are just as limited. As if the clock is ticking and they love each other, despite the expectations not lived up to with traditional mother and son roles. (the film was even dedicated to Almodovar’s own mom when she died shortly after the release)
If there are anything Almodovar nails, even if you’ve only seen one of his films, its the power of memory and longing. To him, its no harm is belaboring the past in that it’s now gone, but how it shapes the present is just as important. ALL ABOUT MY MOTHER is so sincere and filled with joy that it celebrates life in the wake of tragedy, in that its one way to read it. The other way is that its a parody, incredibly over genuine that it’s distracting. To express one’s emotions is more proactive than to ridicule and in the cinema of Almodovar, that’s achieved through the particular brand of storytelling called melodrama.
Melodrama is what Pedro has become infamous, which is the heightened emotions combined that combine with exaggerated storytelling. It is certainly more of an esoteric style but for what he has accomplished, he uses this language incredibly well. It’s dreaming and hypnotizing, simultaneously campy and sensationalized. A tough tight rope to walk considering the balance of tense moments and how to not have the style distract.
Like when we see Rosa’s death from AIDS while giving birth near the end, its a deeply empathetic moment without any of the antics before it taking away from the sincerity. The balance of tone is so particular and rarely found in any American directors, international artist separates themselves by accomplishing the little things that American filmmakers struggle with.
We see Manuela occasionally return to her love of theatre, a meta-commentary would be a good guess of Almodovar not being able to leave his love of cinema. These scenes are short-lived but therapeutic to Manuela and the auidence, just from the emotional response Cecila Roth gives Manuela. Life is a performance, after all, performing to the character we see fit. Its a bit of encapsulation with what Almodovar is trying to do with the movie, tender and lovely work of art that is as gripping as the theatre Manuela watches.
One thing Pedro doesn’t like is the idea of separation. Anything can coexist, trans, adoptive, and birthed parenthood, erotic and sterile. It’s all interesting to him, a person whose filmography is about as adored as he adores humanity.