All About My Mother (1999)
aka Todo Sobre Mi Madre

D: Pedro Almodóvar
S: Cecilia Roth, Eloy Azorin

Pedro Almodóvar's 'mature' cinema continues (following Live Flesh) with an entertaining variant on familiar themes and characters which eventually manages a degree of drama and emotional resonance which has still not robbed him of his audaciousness or sense of humour. A self-conscious tribute to women who are larger-than-life, the film centres on Cecilia Roth as the mother of young Eloy Azorin. Her life takes many unexpected directions as the film progresses, beginning with the shock death of her son in a traffic accident which sends her on a journey into her past to track down his long-lost father. Tennessee Williams' A Streetcar Named Desire and the Hollywood classic All About Eve get worked into a very busy narrative which, after a slow start, builds up considerable momentum and gives a range of actors great latitude to develop characters whose story arcs intersect with Roth's. There's a lot of soap opera to it, with lots of incident, plenty of tears, and more female bonding than you can shake a stick at, but Almodóvar is conscious of the dangers of cliché, and thus plays with the conventions of the genre by emphasising unusual emotional responses and manipulating identification.

Roth gives a superb performance in the lead. She exudes the kind of life-force which Almodóvar is entranced by, yet registers convincing pain. The film charts a life-redefining moment in which both fate and choice play a part. Roth allows us to share the sense of conflict which drives her character, on one hand possessing the strength to go on, on the other barely containing her despair when her memory is triggered. An intriguing sub-plot has her become obsessed with a touring performance of A Streetcar Named Desire featuring maturing star Marisa Peredes and her lesbian junkie lover Candela Peña. She notes (with arguably excessive self-awareness) that the play has become a central feature of her life, a symbol of roads not taken and a fated future (her burgeoning acting career was cut short by her pregnancy; the father of the child was playing Stanley to her Stella). This provides Almodóvar with an opportunity to spiral off into the world of theatre and study the dynamics of performance, and to give further weight to a sub-textual elaboration on the creative impulse (Azorin wanted to be a writer). Peredes is also excellent, and with the arrival of Antonia San Juan as a prostitute and Penélope Cruz as a pregnant nun (don't ask), the character list increases to a point where an ordinary actress would be overwhelmed. Roth, however, gives the film a stable centre, and she carries it right through to the tearful climax and the extended epilogue which brings the drama full circle.

Non-Spanish speakers grappling with subtitles will struggle to get the full benefit of the film as Almodóvar's dialogue-rich screenplay tends to keep you focused on the lower half of the frame to the cost of much of what's going on above it. If you can manage it, there is plenty to see though, with Affonso Beato's cinematography and José Salcedo's editing keeping things moving in time with the script and performances. Almodóvar piles on the gags though, and there are plenty of entertaining exchanges between characters and strange twists in the various sub-plots which depend on a bit of verbal gymnastics to keep us from dismissing the whole thing as a farce. We don't, which is a tribute to Almodóvar's skill with difficult material, and though we have quite a good time following events and characters, we are always involved on an emotional level.

Though not as generally gripping as Live Flesh, All About My Mother is a well-mounted drama with humorous undertones which sits nicely in Almodóvar's filmography and should appeal to fans of his work, and of European cinema on the whole. Its greater level of genuine drama and believable characters will probably open it to a wider audience than has previously followed him, and, in that sense, moves him deeper into the mainstream than some die-hard art-house devotees may like. It comes with a quota of self-conscious narrative conceits which challenge expectation and enough suitably outrageous moments to push the envelope of taste though, and this should satisfy all parties. All About My Mother is worth seeing, and certainly among the best foreign-language films of the year. Time will tell if it will prove as enduring as his comic art-house hits Matador and Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown.

Review by Harvey O'Brien copyright 2000.