Just prior to All About My Mother‘s closing credit sequence, there is an effusive 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.”
These final statements would seem to emphasize the new directions Spanish filmmaker Almodovar has chosen. With this film, he has offered up a kinder, gentler version of his usual gender-bending and hysterical melodrama. Gone are the heroin-addicted lesbian nuns (Dark Habits), women who fall in love with their kidnappers (Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!), and rapists whose victims have orgasms while being attacked (Kika). It seems, judging from All About My Mother‘s matrilineal focus and the huge amounts of hype the film has generated on the European and North American art-house circuits, that Almodovar has finally found his groove he’s worked all his kinks out and rebelled his way through every foreseen transgression and there is now nowhere for him to go but up. And it appears that Almodovarian transcendence is a lot mellower than any of his previous forays would have predicted.
But it would be misleading to leave it at that. The usual suspects commonly found in his previous films still abound the film features a pregnant HIV-positive nun, a transgendered prostitute, a famous theater starlet who is a closet lesbian, and finally, a man with large breasts named Lola. But here Almodovar does not rest with his usual solicitation of archetypal or outrageous performances; he insists on softly poking at these characters’ veneers to reveal the sweetness within. They are not just played for shocks and laughs, but also for tears and empathy.
And within this melodramatic technique lies a manipulation new to the director’s oeuvre, for, of course, in order to cry over the characters’ sometimes scandalous woes, viewers must be successfully steered in the appropriate direction.
Perfectly suitable for the aforementioned task is Manuela (Cecilia Roth), the film’s central heroine, the least outrageous of the crew, and absolutely gorgeous to boot. Whatever her past might have been, she is now a single mother whose whole life is devoted to her 18-year-old son Esteban (Eloy Azorin). All About My Mother opens on a quiet night in their home, as they’re watching All About Eve on television. His birthday falls the next day, and after he thanks his mother for her gifts Truman Capote’s Music for Chameleons and tickets to see a traveling theater’s production of A Streetcar Named Desire starring Esteban’s favorite actress, Huma Rojo (one of Almodovar’s own favorites, Marisa Paredes) what he wants most is to find or learn about the father he never knew. Due to reasons unknown to Esteban, and what is gradually discovered by the viewer through ongoing diatribes by Manuela and her old friends (diatribes involving cryptic remarks about large, synthetic breasts and the scornfully pronounced name of “Lola”), Manuela remains close-mouthed regarding paternal details.
Through this tactic, the character of Lola eventually enters as a mythological persona non grata. The first of many tragedies then occurs… On an appropriately miserably rainy night, while in pursuit of Blanche Dubois’/Huma Rojo’s autograph, Esteban is struck and killed by a car. Having lost her only family, Manuela resolves to return to her previous home of Barcelona in search of her former family, but the search is primarily for Esteban Sr./Lola. Eighteen years prior, Lola had known nothing of Manuela’s pregnancy or the son named after him. It seems he had other concerns, mostly being those related to the fulfillment of his desire for sex with as many people possible. And although the picture painted of Lola is not pretty and Manuela did seem to once love him, her attachment to Esteban II is portrayed as so intense that at the time, she rejected all other attachments, even to the biological father.
But her feelings change after her son’s death, and so, Manuela’s search for daddy ensues, including many subplots and distractions which allow for the emergence of a colorful supporting cast. While attending numerous performances of Streetcar, now conveniently showing in Barcelona, Manuela begins a friendship with Huma Rojo, who is, we learn, obsessed with Bette Davis, her drug-addicted co-star Nina (Candela Pena), and chain-smoking. Manuela also resumes her friendship with the woman who had once accompanied Lola to Paris for their twin breast-implant surgeries, La Agrado (Antonia San Juan), so named, she says, “because I have always tried to make things agreeable for everybody.” And most significantly, Manuela becomes a surrogate mother to Sister Rosa (Penelope Cruz), a young, stunningly beautiful nun who became pregnant by Lola while nursing him through drug-rehabilitation, and who has also acquired his HIV-status.
Despite these ingenious characterizations, Huma, La Agrado, and even Manuela, gradually begin to fade away as Sister Rosa and her pregnancy assume center-stage. The Sister herself is not a particularly interesting character, as her most noteworthy comment regards her belief that nuns should be garbed solely in Prada. What’s relevant about her character is her upcoming childbirth. She is primarily a vessel, functioning to give back to Manuela the son she lost.
This new son, Esteban III, provides emotional closure for both Manuela, still feeling “empty” after the death of her son, and for Lola, whose fast-ending life can now be extended through his progeny. The film’s first half, with its emphasis on Manuela and her own good-hearted resilience, evolving posse of women, and (an eventually revealed) penchant for acting, gives way to a second half that is focused on mothering. The miracle baby, with his seemingly permanent expulsion of his initial HIV+ status, achieves full narrative prominence. And with this restructuring of priorities, the film’s sense of humor and irony fades and the melodramatic suspense prevails.
By film’s end, women acting has become much less important than women mothering. Reasons for this directional shift are not given: the film suggests that this shift a “natural” turn of events, and so, motivations do not need to be explained. Manuela is fiercely maternal from the onset, but other aspects of her character had remained equally in view. This multi-faceted characterization changes as the death and re-birth of an only son becomes the film’s guiding light, as well as its means to a quietly essentialist embrace of motherhood. Forget the friends made and the plays staged: now that Manuela has a son again, she can finally resume her life and its “true” calling.