Monday, December 7, 2009

Real women on the verge: Pedro Almodóvar’s ALL ABOUT MY MOTHER

I recently received an early Christmas present from my friend Raúl Ansola in Spain: Pedro Almodóvar’s All About My Mother, which I somehow missed on its original release in 1999. (I blame graduate school for this lapse. Up until that point, I’d seen all of Almodóvar’s films, usually in the theatre with my friend Kevin. Graduate school, which I began just as All About My Mother was released, interfered with all movie-going.) The film is a revelation, and a landmark in Almodóvar’s career—a moving, beautiful, and utterly believable meditation on loss from a man whose name is usually not associated with believability.

All About My Mother tells the story of Manuela (the fabulous Cecilia Roth), a nurse who lives in Madrid with her teenaged son Esteban (Eloy Azorín), who wants to be a writer. She’s the kind of mother who encourages her son’s talents by buying him a copy of Truman Capote’s Music for Chamelons and then reading aloud from it to him on request, while secretly harboring concerns over his choice of career. This nurturing streak in her character extends to her professional life—she works to convince grieving loved ones to donate the deceased’s organs for transplantation (a plot line that is apparently lifted from an earlier Almodóvar film, The Flower of My Secret [1995], featuring Marisa Paredes, who also stars here). She takes Esteban to see a touring production of A Streetcar Named Desire for his birthday, and when he chases a cab containing the production’s Blanche, the actress Huma Rojo (Paredes), for an autograph, he is struck by a car and killed. And so begins Manuela’s painfully slow process of healing, which takes her from Madrid back to Barcelona in search of Esteban’s father, a transvestite she’d left eighteen years earlier; on the day of his death, Esteban had written in his journal that his only real wish was to know something about his father, whom he’d never met. Along Manuela’s way, she becomes a sort of den mother to a decidedly motley crew of characters: Rosa (Penélope Cruz), a pregnant nun; Agrado (Antonia San Juan), a transsexual prostitute; Huma, the actress now also in Barcelona with the run of Streetcar and who is somehow vaguely responsible for Esteban’s death; Huma’s drug-addled lesbian lover Nina (Candela Peña), the production’s Stella.

What’s astonishing about All About My Mother is the number of levels on which it works. It has plenty of the goofy touches that are part of any Almodóvar film—outlandish characters, tacky, garish sets, ridiculous costumes, campy, sexual dialogue. But this time—probably for the first time—Almodóvar works with a surprising gravity and emotional depth. I kept thinking that I would soon be laughing, but apart from three or four lines of dialogue, I never did. There’s real pain in this film, and it’s carried largely on the able shoulders of the superb Argentinean actress Cecilia Roth, whose face is often etched in anguish and yet who carries herself with such incredible dignity and grace that you fall in love with her instantly. (This is the second performance of Roth’s that I’ve seen—the first was in 1997’s Martín (hache), another gift from Señor Ansola. Muchas gracias, mi querido!) Streetcar is a somewhat obvious choice for the play in which Huma and Nina perform, for women on the verge of a nervous breakdown is not only the title of one of Almodóvar’s most famous films, but such women are his stock in trade. His films are populated by people on the verge of cracking up—mentally, physically, spiritually, sexually. But in those early films there was never any sense of the stakes—they were always such broad farces that you knew it was never really anything to worry about. This is not to suggest any displeasure on my part with Almodóvar’s early works, which are deliriously funny, gorgeously campy, and often involved Antonio Banderas naked and with his legs up in the air. But here, you get the sense that Almodóvar has finally made a movie entirely for grown-ups—there is nothing cheap or low in All About My Mother, and the fact that it never devolves into the soap opera it might have become is what makes it such a delight. He proves here that he can keep his freaks, his clowns, his outrageous scenarios and his implausible coincidences and be serious and moving at the same time. It’s like watching someone on a tightrope: you’re convinced he’s going to fall, but hoping that he won’t. Almodóvar stays high in the air all the while, and all we can do is applaud.

The performances could not be bettered. It has only been in the last year or so that I’ve warmed to Penélope Cruz. I’ve tended to hate her English-language performances, largely because she’s been in such terrible films, such as the awful Vanilla Sky (the lame remake of the much-better Spanish-language Abre los ojos, in which Cruz also appeared), and the tedious All the Pretty Horses (a bad film based on a bad novel). But it was Woody Allen’s Vicky Cristina Barcelona that changed my mind about her, and in Mother she manages to be both earthy and otherworldly (her own mother calls her an “alien”) as the nun who is not quite what she appears to be. Antonia San Juan, who looks rather like a tired Wendy Carlos and who is herself transsexual, is the film’s comic center, and her openness and honesty should feel like a cliché (the hooker with the heart of gold) but doesn’t, thanks in large part to San Juan’s oddly expressive face and superb timing. Marisa Paredes brings an exhausted grandeur to the role of Huma Rojo, the aging actress whose name means Smoke and who got hooked on cigarettes at age eighteen to be more like her idol, Bette Davis. The film’s parallels to both Streetcar and All About Eve (which Manuela and Esteban watch together on the day before he dies) are obvious and yet aren’t belabored either, another instance in which Almodóvar might’ve gone for the shtick but instead went for the pathos. The film is ultimately about the ways in which we grieve, and it is to Almodóvar’s credit that he neither rushes Manuela’s grief nor belittles it. She can still break down in sobs at the end of the film—having a surrogate family does not erase the pain over the one she’s lost. It is this painful honesty, happily coexisting with the freakish and the outlandish that are Almodóvar’s forte, that makes All About My Mother the deliciously adult work that it is. It has whetted my appetite for Almodóvar’s more recent work, like Volver. Yes, Raúl: that is a hint, my friend.

P.S. Those of you who can read Spanish should check out Raúl Ansola’s new novel, Illius, just published in Spain. My own copy is winging its way across the Atlantic, as I write this.

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