Todo sobre mi madre

(All About My Mother, Spain/France - 1999)

by Mike Lorefice & Tina Goldberg

Cast: Cecilia Roth, Marisa Paredes, Antonia San Juan, Penelope Cruz, Candela Pena, Rosa Maria Sarda, Fernando Fernan Gomez, Toni Canto, Eloy Azorin
Genre: Drama/Comedy
Director: Pedro Almodovar
Screenplay: Pedro Almodovar
Cinematography: Affonso Beato
Composer: Alberto Inglesias
Runtime: 101 minutes

Mike: Pedro Almodovar is a director who uses some of the most bizarre situations and sets of characters to make his points. He's particularly drawn to women (moreso than even Robert Altman) - especially ones that must deal with earth shattering experiences - and characters that in various ways don't follow traditional sexual orientation. His earlier films were generally a combination of comedy, farce, satire, shock, and drama. As time has gone on he's started taking his characters more seriously. Most of them still only exist on the fringe of society and are capable of entertaining us and making us laugh, but at the same time we now have reason to feel for them.

Tina: A standard quip about a person's attire/appearance/behavior when I was in college was..."Fill in the Blanks" looks like he/she is auditioning for a role in a Fellini movie. If you've seen any Fellini movies, you'll understand the mental imagery. I'm not really sure that I can put Almodovar's characters in that category...yet.

Of the four Pedro Almodovar movies that I've seen, Todo Sobre Mi Madre has been the most powerful from an emotional standpoint. It follows the standard Almodovar formula of pain, love, tragedy, comedy, and redemption…all the conditions of the human spirit. The Almodovar twist is these emotions are portrayed by people whom the majority of society deems flawed or dysfunctional. Maybe it's the flaws that have helped endear those characters to this viewer.

Mike: Todo Sobre Mi Madre is loaded with characters you'd associate with Almodovar if you didn't know they were his. We have two male truck drivers - Agrado (Antonia San Juan) & Lola (Toni Canto) - that bought a pair of tits and quit their job to be hookers. We have two lesbian actresses - Nina (Candela Pena) & Huma Rojo (Marisa Parides) - the former hooked on junk and the later hooked on her. Finally, we have a nun, Sister Rosa (Penelope Cruz), who is pregnant with the transvestite Lola's kid. Through all this, we have an intimate portrait of women, motherhood, and family values.

Tina: In addition, Agrado not only wants to be a woman, but the perfect woman in terms of beauty and measurements. Sister Rosa has relationship problems with her parents. She was born to what appear to be upper class parents, yet she chooses to rebel by working with junkies in a church. This decision puts her at odds with her mother, and would with her father as well, but he suffers from Alzheimer's and is mentally gone.

Mike: Almodovar was always known for being a director who wouldn't hold back and wasn't afraid to show anything. How else could you explain the scene in Atame! where a toy scuba diver swims between Victoria Abril's legs while she's in the tub and pleasures her? Here he's far less graphic, but displays no emotional restraint. I don't think as a whole Todo Sobre Mi Made is much better than Atame!, a very good farce about a released mental patient that kidnaps his dream girl (a porn star) in hopes she'll learn to love him while in captivity. It garnered a bad reputation because many people (particularly women) somehow thought it was totally serious (it would be sexist, but if any sex should have a problem with Almodovar it's his own because the few men in his films are always wooden), rather than seeing through the material to what Almodovar was saying about dependency, the ties and binds of relationships, the role of the women in the relationship, and the compromises women are forced to make. There's no doubt though that Todo Sobre Mi Madre is a far more sensitive film. It works because once you get beyond their sexual preferences, the characters aren't that much different from anyone else. Their wants, needs, and plight are very real.

One of the biggest reasons people like this film so much is that they can relate to it. If you are one of those people that can't look past the surface, you'll probably shut the movie off soon after Manuela (Cecilia Roth) travels from Madrid to Barcelona to find Lola after their son Estaban (Eloy Azorin) dies from being run over by a car because that's when we realize the film is loaded with Almodovar characters. If you can then soon you won't see them as simply transvestites and such because the film is largely about decisions made between family members, particularly by mothers. Sometimes family and mother are figurative, but what is important are the roles rather than such specifics, and they are roles that in some form someone in our lives fills or has filled. In fact, the film is about life in general, which is why at the same time it can make you pay attention to issues you might rather ignore like drug addiction, prostitution, and HIV.

Tina: Manuela's plight is to try to overcome the grief of losing the most important aspect of her life (her son Esteban) by traveling to Barcelona to carry out his last wish and perhaps give herself some closure. Esteban wanted to meet and learn about his father, a father who never knew he even had a son. During the course of carrying out Esteban's wish she is able to reconnect with an old friend (Agrado), help an aging actress out with her problems (Huma Rojo), and provide comfort "motherly" advice and a bridge between the parental relationship problems of Sister Rosa. She is finally able to connect with Lola and not only provide him with information and photos of her son Esteban, but to introduce him to his new infant son (also named Esteban). It's tragic, but through it all Manuela shows these characters that life is too fragile and short to be trivial.

Mike: The plot is more or less one of convenience. It's there to link all the characters and then put them into positions where they have to reconsider their actions, learn from their mistakes, and discover what they really want from life. The film never develops any heightened level of urgency like we saw in the frantic Mujeres al Borde de un Ataque de Nervios, but its consequences are real. It's not about creating suspense, but it's not afraid to have a character simply be dead in the next scene. The object is not to make you root for the characters, but think about the result of their actions. Of course, there are all the atmospheric colors, self-parody, comedy, the very stylistic transition scenes, and homage like virtually every Almodovar film. In particular, Almodovar has constructed the film so he can regularly pay homage to two of the best old movies, All About Eve and A Streetcar Named Desire. However, all of this simply makes it a more entertaining look at the subject matter.

The film revolves around Manuela, a good actress who gave up a career in the field because she is more concerned with raising her son and helping people. She does act, but only in hospital's infomercials that promote organ donation. She has done just about everything possible to help and support her son except prostitution, but on his 17th birthday she finds out that he still feels incomplete. He feels that half of him is missing because he doesn't know who his father is or anything about him. She promises to tell him that day, but before she can, in a scene putting a new spin on the autograph hounds in All About Eve, he's struck down while chasing after Huma Rojo, the star of this version of A Streetcar Named Desire. Manuela is then forced to replay her role in the organ donor commercial except this time it's not acting. As she couldn't tell her son about his father, she journeys to finally tell her father about his son.

In Barcelona, Manuela conveniently runs into her and her husband Lola's old friend "La Agrado." This street name was adopted after Agrado's sexual transformation because "her" mantra was going to be making life agreeable. Agrado is a prostitute, but "she's" more like a butler that's actually hilarious. She selflessly meets the needs of those around her, whatever they may be, although we get the sense that she tries so hard to please people and keep them happy because she badly needs friends. There's a classic scene where A Streetcar Named Desire has to be cancelled after the crowd has arrived so Agrado, who is not a performer in the theatrical sense, gets up there and entertains the audience with her life story, which is basically a rundown of all the parts she bought to try to be an appealing female prostitute. Although Agrado has been beaten up and nearly killed at times, according to her the worst thing about her work is you've got to look cute and keep up with the latest advances in fashion and cosmetic surgery. Agrado is basically a comic relief character, adding light and optimism to the tragedy, but Antonia San Juan does such a good job that Agrado is the life of the movie.

Agrado convinces Manuela to pretend that she's a streetwalker when she introduces her to Sister Rosa because those are the kind of people Rosa helps. Rosa is very naïve. She treated Lola for drugs recently, but knowing "she's" also a long time prostitute on top of a long time user didn't prevent her from having unprotected sex with "her." At first Rosa tries to help Manuela find a job, trying to get her parents to hire her as a cook. Rosa's mother (Rosa Maria Sarda) is one of those people who never get their points through regardless of whether they are right or wrong because they are intolerable rather than understanding. I wouldn't want to hire a prostitute my daughter had only known for an hour or two either, but her disapproving way of handling the situation seems to be just the latest in a long line of reasons Rosa never comes over.

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As the film progresses, we find out that Rosa is pregnant with Lola's baby and got HIV from her in the process. Rosa is in a tough spot. She can't go back to work because it's scandalous for a nun to get pregnant. She won't go to her parents' house because she (no one) could stand 9 months of that. She's in need of a mother. Penelope Cruz is a great choice to play Rosa because she's Ms. Likeable. Actually, most of the characters are likeable though imperfect. With Penelope in the nun role, you don't think about all the negative aspects surrounding the situation of a nun having a transvestite's baby, which is important because the film has no intention of dealing with them.

As Rosa's situation is getting worse, Manuela has found a job working as Huma's assistant. In another twist on All About Eve, Manuela winds up in the production one night, although she's not stealing Huma's role, because the self-centered and destructive Nina was particularly excessive and can't perform. As one of the endless coincidences, Manuela still knows the role perfectly because it was the production she was in when she met Lola, who was called Estaban then and ironically played the brutally raw Marlon Brando role of Stanley Kowalski. The end result of this situation isn't important because Manuela decides she's made to be a mother. She winds up taking care of Rosa, who has more or less been asking her to fill that void in her life and can't move much because she might have a miscarriage, while Agrado takes her place as Huma's assistant.

Manuela urges Rosa to keep her parents involved because her own mistake was cutting her son off from Lola. They both wind up learning from each other. Rosa makes sure Lola knows he has a son this time and Manuela finding out Rosa's mom truly is someone to avoid at all costs, although eventually she's cut off long enough that she kind of comes around. What Manuela really learns from her experience with Rosa is that she needs to be a mother; it's the one thing that makes her life feel meaningful and complete.

Tina: Manuela gets a slight edge over Sister Rosa for my favorite character. I found her inspirational in that she suffers such tragedy, but still finds the strength to carry out Esteban's last wish. While doing this, she's also able to help everyone else (or so it seems) cope with their own personal tragedy.

Mike: The films structuring and overuse of foreshadowing make it begin to become rather predictable. It's interesting, entertaining, and oddly fascinating enough that it's not overly deterrent, but still a different formula doesn't necessarily mean a better one. The film loses steam in the final minutes, with an overly long and "heartwarming" scene that once again shows Almodovar weakness (disinterest) in getting male performances (the main exception was Javier Bardem in Carne Tremula, but by that point Bardem was incapable of giving a weak performance).

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The acting from the women, most of whom have already done impressive work for Almodovar, is excellent as always. Cecilia Roth's performance as the ideal caring and self-sacrificing mother who searches for redemption is very vibrant, tender, compassionate, and moving. She does a particularly good job of combining love and anguish. Marisa Parides is graceful, yet tormented. She's very tough, but at the same time desperate because her lover is dragging her down with her unreliability. She also does a good job of showing that her character doesn't really care or notice too much that she's a star, and one whose star is fading, because she's bored and world weary from years of being in the public eye. As was the case in the very underrated The Hi-Lo Country & otherwise useless Twice Upon A Yesterday, Penelope Cruz, who wears bland regular attire and no makeup, is very convincing as an ordinary person. Her emotion is the most believable in the film because it's more understated. She conveys her character's vulnerability, fragility, and helplessness, yet at the same time gives her character a great inner strength.

Almodovar's direction is in top form. It's subtle, graceful, and gliding. He gives you all the style you'd expect, but not in a pretentious and pointless manner like Pay It Forward where the B-sides of the American Beauty soundtrack are cranking as the camera moves constantly, seemingly only because someone decided that's what a camera should do. The style, décor, lush scenery and colors are consolidated to the scenes that need it to hold our interest such as the opening credits and the transitional sequences. The cinematography and soundtrack are quite good, but don't stand out because Almodovar knows it's an acting movie and doesn't distract us from his story or the performances that give it so much life.

Even though he's one of the better directors, Almodovar's top form is still far from perfect. His films have always verged on coming off as soap opera, but most were steeped in absurdity. Now that everyone is taking the film seriously the absurdity that's still there is conflicting at times, making some emotions (even though well portrayed) seemed forced and the film seem artificial at times. Sometimes the film seems to be trying to do too much at once to maintain its ratings. As a whole, the film seems too hopeful because on one hand it's giving us a lot of tragedy, but on the other it's always taking the optimistic point of view. That's not surprising from Almodovar, who likes to show meaning and order being restored to the characters lives through extreme measures and/or circumstances. The culmination, a happy and intending to be heartfelt reunion, is the right ending for the film, but it's a little too nice and neat to say it played out believably.

Tina: I loved the movie, but to be fair, it's not one of the greatest things in the world. I found it to be a strong study of human emotions as seen and relayed through the eyes of folks who would be considered off beat by societal norms. Tragedy can bring out the best in people, and this movie shows that as well as offering redemption. I'm a sucker for movies that make me cry with these portrayals.

Mike: The film is more likely to appeal to women because it's a study of their universe, but it's not some lame standard fair that you'd find on Lifetime Television For Wusses. It is melodramatic, but has some punch, realism, and strength behind it. The story is ludicrous on paper, but the direction, performances, and the way it told bring you into it so instead of seeing it as such it becomes something of value.

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