Almodovar 101 takes a look at some of the Spanish auteur's greatest hits - from Pepi, Luci and Bom up through Volver, a crack team of PopMatters film writers/Almodovar experts from New Jersey to Madrid are on hand to guide readers through the vivid world of the director.
All About My Mother (1999)
Mothers should die before their children. Or so the natural order would have you believe. But when a child is taken from a parent at a too-young age, what happens to the broken heart they leave behind? When the mother’s identity was virtually wrapped in a delicate tissue paper of their children’s needs and future, how do they move into their own future and go forward?
The first step, according to Pedro Almodóvar’s All About My Mother, is to examine and confront their past, what led them to their children, and how they got to where they are in the first place, not to mention what their dreams and aspirations were before they had children. Women often put everything on hold to nurture, to ensure their children will be given the right care. It is that particular kind of selflessness that we expect women to constantly give of themselves. Their wants and needs are supposed to be placed behind not only their husbands or their parents, but also their kids. Women are there to make it easier for men, the elderly, and their offspring, but who makes it easier for them?
Manuela (expertly realized by Cecilia Roth) works as a nurse in an organ donor program, but when her son Esteban (Eloy Azorin) is violently taken from her (in scenes purposefully recalling John Cassavetes’ masterpiece Opening Night), she is placed in the position of her clients, and has to make the same difficult decision: does her son’s heart live on beating in the chest of another young person, or does he end right then and there?
The pair shared a special relationship – quote about Tennessee Williams. They watch classic Hollywood “diva” films such as All About Eve and go to the theater together – memorably to see Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire, with the mercurial role of Blanche Dubois performed by Esteban’s favorite actress, Huma (Marisa Parades). That Manuela’s son seems to be gay, and that she nurtures not only his creative side, but also his sensitive side, is a nod to her past: unknown to the young man, Esteban’s father happens to be a transsexual man dying of AIDS, and Manuela once lived a much more adventurous life among the fringe, even playing Stella in a production of Streetcar herself once upon a time, something that will become key to the plot later.
When Esteban dies, Manuela goes searching for the boy’s father, who never knew he was alive. She is catapulted back into this sometimes dangerous, often humorous world where the lines of gender, sexuality and “acting” are all smeared like Agrado (the amazing Antonia San Juan)’s lipstick when Manuela happens upon her fresh from being beaten by a rough trade trick in the street. Agrado’s world is dangerous – prostitution is one of her only options for work. She suggests they go to see Hermana Rosa (Penelope Cruz) to find some sort of suitable work, but the sister is harboring a few secrets of her own in regards to the shady junkie dad.
Almodóvar’s treatment of “the underbelly of society”, the queens who work the streets, the dying, the thieves, and those who dare subvert gender is unique to contemporary cinema in that it portrays a group of people who are marginalized by not only heterosexual people, but also the gay community to an extent. Transgender men and women are unfortunately still a group that encounters the worst kinds of extreme violence and hatred. Trans people are still widely, routinely victims of hate crimes all over the world and are often persecuted for simply existing. Fear of that which does not fall into a category is something Almodóvar is much more eloquent at articulating than I am, but his treatment of trans women, as witnessed in this film, is a landmark topic for a contemporary auteur and one that he depicts with dignity and strength, rather than stereotypes. He treats all of his trans women as ladies, born of the innate respect for women the director is renowned for, showing the good, the bad and the ugly, every facet, nothing left unturned. Almodóvar doesn’t let anyone in his films get away with being a paper saint, thankfully.
This treatment is extended not only to the trans characters, but also to the nuns and the mothers, both kinds of characters are presented as both flawed and good. Mothers according to the director, also have their little mysteries and pleasures – they’re not just archetypes. Almodovar's own relationship with his own mother (Fransica) enhances the vision, and the viewer’s connection with Manuela, as well as with their own mothers, will only benefit from the story’s empowering of this character type and the emotional focus on the many shades of mysterious human behavior that we all share an interest in. It is a world that is not free of judgment, but one that challenges and even overcomes it at points: it is a world in which mothers can be whatever they desire and one in which their children never die.