All About My Mother airs at 2:30 AM on Monday, March 28th
Spanish filmmaker Pedro Almodóvar had written and directed a dozen movies before All About My Mother (Todo sobre mi madre) (1999) won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Film. He had been nominated for the same award a decade earlier for his theatrical Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown (Mujeres al borde de un ataque de nervios) (1988), a film adaptation of Jean Cocteau’s play, The Human Voice (La Voix Humaine). However, it was his more precisely textured and, in many ways, more sincere turn of the century film that held the attention of American movie goers and critics. All About My Mother retains his signature style: bold color symbolism, soap operatic melodrama, campy performances and frequent allusions to movies and plays starring outspoken women. It also maintains his commitment to LGBT representation, particularly within Spanish culture. In Spain, homosexuality has been legal since 1979 and prostitution, which employs many transgender women in the country, was decriminalized in 1995. As the premiere filmmaker of La Movida Madrileña, the countercultural movement that arose in Madrid after the death of dictator Francisco Franco in 1975, Almodóvar continues his nuanced portrayals of queer and transgender communities in this film. Yet, in the words of the filmmaker himself, All About My Mother departs significantly from his earlier oeuvre. It tends toward “greater sobriety.” “There is humor like there is in everyday life,” he said of the film, but “there is much more pain.” If darkly funny Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown ends with a pregnancy announcement, poignant All About My Mother delves into birth, death and maternal care.
The first fifteen minutes of the film deftly establishes a multi-layered self-referential plotline. The film’s story originates in Almodóvar’s earlier The Flower of My Secret (La flor de mi secreto) (1995) which shows student doctors being trained in how to persuade grieving relatives to allow organs to be used for transplant. All About My Mother opens in a hospital in Madrid and focuses on a nurse named Manuela (Cecilia Roth) whose bittersweet responsibility is to arrange organ donation. Manuela is also single mother to her teenage son, Esteban (Eloy Azorin), who wants to be a playwright. Juxtaposed with the cold blue hospital is the duo’s warm red-hued home, where they eat dinner in front of the television, watching Joseph Mankiewicz’s All About Eve (1950), the classic golden era Hollywood film about stage actresses, their lives both on and off stage. It is clear that Esteban is artistically interested in performance – including that of his mother, who was once a stage actress herself. Borrowing from the metatheatricality of All About Eve, the world of All About My Mother exists on the thin line between art and life.
While eating dinner with Manuela, Esteban laments the Spanish title of All About Eve, “Eva al desnudo” (“Eva Unveiled”). He argues that it should be, “Todo sobre Eva” (“All About Eve”). Manuela dismisses his translation, saying it sounds odd. Yet he is immediately inspired and revises the entire title in his journal, writing “TODO SOBRE MI MADRE.” This moment suggests that the film will be Esteban’s revision of Mankiewicz’s movie, a portrait of the most important woman in his life – her roles and performances.
Manuela’s son is not onscreen for long. She takes Esteban to see a performance of A Streetcar Named Desire. After the show, while they wait in the rain for the actors to come out and meet their fans, she confesses her identification with Stella, whose pregnancy initiates Blanche’s mental upheaval. Eager to get an autograph from the famous actress Huma Rojo (Marisa Paredes), Esteban pursues her after she quickly jumps into a taxi – echoing the moment in All About Eve when Margo eludes an autograph hound. As Esteban runs after her, he is struck by an oncoming car. He dies in the street.
For the rest of the movie, Manuela is forced to come to terms with giving up her role as mother to Esteban. In a heart-rending role reversal, she shifts from self-assured nurse to an aimless grieving parent when she donates Esteban’s heart for transplant. After obsessively following the man who has her son’s heart, she becomes compelled to journey back to Barcelona to tell Esteban’s father, Lola, a transgender woman, that she had their son and he died. Her train ride to the coast, which hurdles through a dark tunnel, recalls the birth canal – but one heading in the opposite direction, inward instead of outward. Just as a child’s death is a strange reversal of the natural order of things, so, too, is Manuela’s self-reflexive journey into her past. This moment is a beautiful example of the collaboration between cinematographer Affonso Beato (of the Brazilian Cinema Novo movement) and composer Alberto Iglesias (longtime collaborator with Julio Medem). They set a tone that is simultaneously cerebral and sensual.
While in Barcelona, she reunites with her old friend, Agrado (Antonia San Juan), a warm transgender sex worker who, later in the film, has an iconic monologue about plastic surgery and female authenticity. Manuela also befriends Huma, the actress her son had admired. Manuela eventually serves as an understudy for Huma’s co-star and girlfriend, Nina Cruz (Candela Peña) and performs in the play. Most heartrending is her burgeoning care for Rosa (Penelope Cruz), a nun who works at a shelter for sex workers who have experienced violence – and who is pregnant by Lola and tests positive for HIV. Manuela’s life becomes intertwined with these women. And as she finds a renewed, more capacious definition of motherhood, revised subtexts from both All About Eve and A Streetcar Named Desire continue to lend meaning to her story.
Almodóvar dedicates his film, “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.” It is easy to see how Esteban might be Almodóvar himself. He haunts the film as a lost son, getting out of the way so the women can write their own roles and conceive of surrogate family structures.
Family – both blood related and chosen kin – play a real part in Almodóvar’s filmmaking. His brother, Agustín, has produced all his films since 1986. Their mother Francisca Caballero made cameos in four films before she died. Film editor José Salcedo was responsible for editing all of Almodóvar’s films from 1980 until his death in 2017. Almodóvar is noted for his repeated work with a coterie of Spanish actresses, affectionately known as “Almodóvar girls” (“chicas Almodóvar”). In addition to All About My Mother, both Cecilia Roth and Penelope Cruz have starred in six films of his; Marisa Paredes has starred in four others. This continual casting provides extra diegetic meaning across his work.
Almodóvar has gone on to direct nine more feature films – winning both the Oscar for Best Director and Best Original Screenplay for Talk to Her (2002). His most recent drama, Parallel Mothers (2021), has been nominated for two Academy Awards.