It took about, oh, about 20 or 30 seconds for Pedro Almodovar's All About My Mother to convince me that I was very likely watching one of the year's great films. The Spanish movie opens with a sequence in which the credits shimmer onscreen in curlicued red script, then fade out again, as the camera glides through a series of close-ups of medical equipment in an operating room: tubes, knobs, dials. It doesn't sound like much, I know, and that may well have to do with why it proved so immediately captivating. What stood out during these simple shots was not anything in them but something about them--their effortless beauty and striking wide-screen elegance, their sense of a serene, completely assured mastery.
Believe it or not, there was a time such assurance was common enough that audiences took it for granted. In the '50s and '60s, people would go into a movie by Hollywood directors like Hitchcock or Cukor or Wyler or Hawks (or dozens of others that could be named), or by European filmmakers such as Godard or Bunuel or Fellini, and know immediately that they were in the hands of a stylist who had a extraordinarily capable, practiced and distinctive grasp of the medium. In many cases, especially in the American films, there was nothing showy about this; in fact, the aura of quality was one that seemed to belong to the system itself, even if it was best represented by the work of certain renowned senior craftsmen.
The cinema overall has witnessed a sad, steady decline since then. At a time when most Hollywood movies seem spit out by a computer, independent filmmaking is given over to fraudulent no-talents like P.T. Anderson (Magnolia) and Kevin Smith (Dogma), and European cinema seems to have dipped into a terminal coma, stylistic aplomb like Almodovar's can feel like a visitation from another galaxy. But a welcome incursion it is, reminding us constantly and delightfully what a movie made by a real master looks and feels like.
Can a half-minute of shots of medical equipment really convey all that? See for yourself; go to the film and see if you're not thoroughly caught up in it before that credits sequence ends and the story proper begins. But permit me to add something before we leave this brief opening sequence. What grabbed me about it, I realized later, has two levels. First, there's the scene's sheer stylistic panache, the sense of shots perfectly framed, photographed, edited and scored. Second--more implicit but perhaps more important, too--there's the feeling of an underlying narrative confidence and purpose: The way these shots swim into view and interweave one into another, you just know you're in the hands of a born storyteller who's going to regale and enthrall you for the next two hours.
And so he does. All About My Mother cues us to the source of its title early on, when the most central of the story's many mothers, Manuela (Cecilia Roth), is watching television with her 17-year-old son Esteban (Eloy Azorin) and Joseph Mankewicz's All About Eve comes on. Esteban complains that the Spanish translation of the film's title misses its real meaning. An aspiring writer, Esteban has a notebook constantly at hand and means to write about his mother. Manuela works in a clinic that handles organ transplants (hence the medical equipment in the opening scene), where she also gets to exercise her youthful theatrical ambitions by acting--quite well, it seems--in skits where doctors explain organ donation to the relatives of potential donors. Esteban, it appears, is fascinated by his mother's ability to play these roles, but there's something else about her past that he would like his writing to uncover: the identity of his father.
It's the boy's birthday and he'd considered asking his mother, at long last, to tell him the story of his origins. But he fails to pose the question and Manuela doesn't offer. Instead, she gives him a copy of Capote's Music for Chameleons and a trip to the theater to see a favorite actress, Huma Rojo (Marisa Paredes), in A Streetcar Named Desire. Leaving the theater in the rain, Esteban runs after Huma's car seeking an autograph, and is struck by another car and killed. In the bitterest of ironies, Manuela ends up again playing--but for real--a bereaved relative of a potential organ donor. And bequeathing her son's heart to a stranger does nothing to ease her grief.
Almodovar made his name with such flamboyant, deliberately over-the-top '80s films as Law of Desire, Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown and Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!, in which outrageous comedy predominated over outlandish melodrama. After hitting a career low with 1993's Kika, in which the comic urge seemed to have hardened into a kind of superficial, self-imitative satire, he bounced back spectacularly with The Flower of My Secret (1995) and Live Flesh (1997), films that blended comedy and melodrama more skillfully than ever before, and also gave the upper hand to melodrama--that is, to real suffering and sorrows, the sort that survive any denial or jokey evasion.
The latter two films, Almodovar has said, form a de facto trilogy with All About My Mother, which may well be his best film ever (it is already established as his most critically and commercially successful). All three movies involve journeys into the past. In All About My Mother, Manuela, following the death of Esteban, returns from Madrid to Barcelona, where she'd lived many years before. The purpose of the trip, we sense, is for the bereaved mother to find the father of her late son. But on arriving, Manuela first visits a local outdoor flesh bazaar and encounters a transvestite she used to live with, Agrado (Antonia San Juan), who's in the process of being beaten up by a john. After Manuela rescues her old friend and takes her home, Agrado the next day takes Manuela to a mission for the down-and-out and introduces her to a young nun, Sister Rosa (Penelope Cruz), who offers to help her find a job.
The movie could be called All These Women. Besides the sweet-tempered Rosa, who, it soon transpires, is pregnant, Manuela meets the nun's haute-bourgeois mother (Rosa Maria Sarda), an art forger who busies herself painting fake Chagalls. What's more, Huma Rojo and her production of Streetcar soon arrive in Barcelona. Manuela not only strikes up a friendship with Spain's favorite Blanche Dubois, but also goes to work with her and understudies for the production, with the result that one day she's called on to replace Nina (Candela Pena), a foul-tempered heroin addict who is Huma's girlfriend and the show's Stella.
As always in Almodovar, the visual mounting of this intricate tale is so colorful and deliciously mannered as to be almost hyper-real. Additionally, a good part of the viewer's pleasure comes from the conviction and talent of a superb cast. No contemporary filmmaker is as good at writing parts for and directing actresses, and here Almodovar nearly outdoes himself. All the film's women are terrific, but particularly worthy of note are Paredes, whose Huma expertly recalls cinematic grande dames like the character's childhood idol, Bette Davis, and Roth, whose Manuela is a beautifully nuanced and sympathetic portrait of a woman transformed by tragedy.
There is, however, one other "woman" who needs mentioning. I'm not giving away anything crucial in noting that Esteban's father, as well as the father of Sister Rosa's child, turns out to be Lola (Toni Canto), an AIDS-afflicted, not altogether feminine transvestite. Lola--whose name two decades before was Esteban--and Manuela were married before he went off to Paris and, like Agrado, an erstwhile truck driver, "got tits." Although Manuela doesn't seem to harbor any anger so long after the fact, her dead son once observed that all of her old pictures of herself were torn in half (young Esteban said he felt like his life was much the same).
Watching Almodovar's movies carries a slightly melancholy edge in reminding us that the melodrama--a worthy genre, like the musical--has all but vanished from the cinema. As R.W. Fassbinder did in Germany, Almodovar was able to give melodrama a new lease on life by adding to it both the campy artifices of a gay sensibility as well as the serious ballast of deep social, personal and religious themes; in both directors' best work, these elements all fuse into an extraordinary aesthetic whole. As I've noted previously, where Fassbinder's great metaphorical subject was the necessary re-crucifixion of Germany, Almodovar's has been the political and cultural resurrection of Spain; his career began just as his nation emerged from the long night of the Franco regime.
Art-house audiences worldwide love his films because of their unabashed gay attitude and postmodern sense of wit and intellectual play. He paints a high-gloss world where freedom is difficult and no family is "normal," where love is always contingent and suffering visits even the most noble and undeserving, where old-fashioned humankind gives way to a gaudy procession of drama queens, transvestites, pregnant nuns and unapologetic prostitutes.
The frisson of encountering such a world in the movies comes from the sense that it mirrors the world beyond the cinema at once more accurately and more imaginatively than journalists or other artists do. But it would be a mistake to think that Almodovar is simply celebrating what he shows us. In fact, the richness and profound emotional pull of his work also has to do with the way it implies the opposite view as well, a regretful sense that everything is not right with this world. In All About My Mother, that implication even hints that there's such a thing as too much freedom.
Of course, Almodovar is too smart to think or suggest that the repression of the past constituted any kind of lost paradise. Yet there is a sense of loss in this film that refuses to be quelled, and that suggests both a growing intellectual disquiet on Almodovar's part and an even deeper personal urgency. I'll not mince words about how I read both phenomena. Almodovar has long celebrated being gay, but his last three films seem to signal a prolonged midlife crisis that, in All About My Mother, becomes most explicit (relatively speaking) about what I take to be his frustration, as a gay man, at not having children. To me, at its deepest level this movie is largely about his so far unsatisfied desire to be a parent.
This perhaps isn't something that will be obvious to many viewers, but I put it to Almodovar just after the film had its premiere at last spring's Cannes Film Festival. The director and I talked with an interpreter's help on the beach one day, as paparazzi snapped some of his actresses in the surf nearby. We talked about the movie's many American references, then I said, "Pedro, Live Flesh and this new film give me the distinct feeling that you'd like to be a father." He suddenly looked away from the interpreter and replied in English.
"It's true," he said, looking me in the eye. "It's crazy, but it's true. I suppose this is part of our nature, because I didn't have that feeling when I was 20. I refused the idea, in that moment. But after turning 40, this is something that I'm feeling. Not only that I want to create a family, I want to have a child of my own blood, which is something so animal." He paused, then laughed, "I'm too normal!"
That, I said, was something people aren't used to accusing him of. Can it really be true: Almodovar comes out of the closet as normal? He laughed again, louder still. The idea seemed to please him.