All About My Mother
Part of what gave Pedro Almodovar's comedies their edge and appeal is that they skirted, in a way flirted with, pain and tragedy. "Dark Habits" was built on the story of a convent of nuns who dealt heroin as a comfort to those in pain. "Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown" built its slapstick on infidelity, divorce, and crime. Now, in "All About My Mother," Almodovar wants to open us to pain and sadness without having to make jokes of them, and he has made a beautiful and loving and powerful film to do it. There are jokes, of course, but this time they grow out of the pain instead of masking it.
"All About My Mother" is the story of Manuela (Cecilia Roth), a nurse who works in the organ donor program of a Madrid hospital. On her son Esteban's eighteenth birthday they see a production of "A Streetcar Named Desire," and Esteban (Eloy Azarin) is so moved by Huma Rojo (Marisa Paredes), the actress playing Blanche, that he runs after her car to get her autograph and is hit and killed by another car. The grieving Manuela, trying for closure, leaves for Barcelona to find Esteban's father, the first Esteban, who abandoned them before his son was born, and who in a classic Almodovar construct is now a transgendered whore, thief and drug addict whose name is Lola.
Manuela reunites with an old friend, also transgendered, Agrado (a delicious performance by Antonia San Juan), who strides into the film and into Manuela's life to help her; she meets Sister Rosa, a pregnant nun (Penelope Cruz); and she goes to work for the actress Huma, now appearing in "Streetcar" in Barcelona. It's important to note here that part of Almodovar's genius is that he can make all of this happen before our eyes, make all of it seem the most logical thing in the world, and pull it off without a moment's hesitation. What would be bizarre coincidence in anyone else's hands seems ordinary, right, and even beautiful here.
Almodovar does it by focussing not on the externals, the mechanisms of what in real life would be unexpected coincidences and even improbable relationships, but simply by accepting them and sharing with us what happens in them. He doesn't waste our time or his on the unnecessary setups that could have stopped a film like this in its tracks. So it is perfectly natural that Manuela, who played Stella in "Streetcar" twenty years before in an amateur production (with the first Esteban as Stanley), is now able to step into Huma's professional theatre for a performance of the play when the company's Stella (and Huma's lover) has overdosed on heroin. And it is natural that she triumphs in it. We're not shocked, we're just delighted for her.
The film is all about women (there are only three men in it -- the two Estebans, one at the beginning and one at the end, and Rosa's father, who has Alzheimer's), and all about acting, and all about how women, even women who were once men, can locate in each other what they all need, and give it freely. Almodovar makes sure they also give it to us in the audience. He's dedicated the film to actresses who've played actresses, and rightly expects us to understand that he means it to apply to all women.