I know it’s often an overstatement to say a film or a book “changed me,” but I know there are some that have become an indelible part of who I am. When I look at the world, I see it enriched by these works, I see more layers and shadows, beauty and pain. When I talk about such works, I’m often talking about the compassionate work of William Trevor and Alice Munro. But I’m also talking about other things, such as Pedro Almodóvar’s 1999 film All About My Mother.
The film’s plot winds through so many characters and appears to go all over the place. If I simply described the characters and their situations to you I would emphasize the film’s melodrama but I’d obscure the film’s depth that, I think, comes from the characters’ non-judgmental compassion and need for compassion. There are so many angles to this film, but somehow Almodóvar keeps control and gives us a beautiful portrait of humanity that includes compassion, as I’ve said, but also, for better or for worse, passion, transcendence, grief, carnality, fear, courage, selflessness, regret . . . an exquisitely nuanced look at some beautifully complex people.
I think Almodóvar maintains control and digs deeply into so many attributes he associates with motherhood — even if you do not have biological children — due to something unexpected, tragic, and ingenious: almost from the outset, Almodóvar removes the son who is writing all about his mother from the equation and let’s us see her on her own terms.
When we begin, we meet Manuela (Cecilia Roth) and Esteban (Eloy Azorín), a mother and her son, celebrating his seventeenth birthday. Since Manuela left Esteban’s father around the time Esteban was born, Manuela and Esteban have been each other’s rock. They are close, and Esteban is smart enough to understand his mother is devoted to him. She has never told her son who his father is. But as Esteban’s life is starting to orbit further away from his mom (he has taken a deep interest in writing and in the theater, and she encourages him), he’d like to know who is father is, and tells her kindly, without rancor or accusation, that’s what he’d like from her for his birthday. They sit together that evening watching All About Eve (which I recently talked about here), and when that’s over Esteban starts a new title: Todo sobre mi madre, or All About My Mother.
This is a fantastic opening, filled with the comfort that comes from such a reassuring relationship. It seems to establish something that might be relatively straightforward. But this is Almodóvar, and he doesn’t often let his films settle down into what we might expect. However, rather quickly Almodóvar separates mother and son. For his birthday, Manuela is taking Esteban to see a performance of A Streetcar Named Desire, starring his favorite actress, Huma Rojo (Marisa Paredes). He waits in the cafe across the street while his mom waits for him in front of the giant Huma Rojo portrait on the wall. With this classic shot, he is able to see her waiting for him, anxious, excited, human.
Soon after this, Almodóvar doubles down on having us see Manuela without Esteban with the rather radical step of having Esteban hit by a car. He doesn’t survive. His own story, All About My Mother, is incomplete, and the film’s just begun. We, the audience, now get a film that shows Manuela starting a new, terrible stage in her own life, one filled with pain, but one where she also cares for the pain in others.
I adore the characters in this film. Huma Roja becomes a central figure, dealing with her own demons and desires. We also meet Rosa (Penelope Cruz), a pregnant nun who also discovers she is HIV-positive.
And there’s the wonderful Agrado (Antonia San Juan), a transgender woman who is confident and frightened, but whose courage trumps.
These beautifully realized characters are handled with such love and sympathy in Almodóvar’s screenplay and direction, it must be impossible to watch this and not latch on to the director’s own admiration of these strong women. It’s infectious and, I think, vital.