All About My Mother (1999) writ. & dir. Pedro Almodovar cine Affonso Beato edt. Jose Salcedo score Alberto Iglesias star Cecilia Roth, Marisa Paredes, Penelope Cruz, Rosa Maria Sarda, Antonia San Juan, Fernando Gomez, Fernando Guillen, Toni Canto

Sony Pictures

Lawrence Russell

All About My Mother: Pedro Almodovar"...the drags are wiping us out... they confuse transvestism with a circus"

Manuela's (Cecilia Roth) young son is hit and killed by a passing car on a rain-slicked street in Madrid after failing to get the autograph of Numa Rojo, a famous actress currently starring in a touring production of A Streetcar Named Desire. As Manuela is a nurse and coordinator at a heart transplant clinic, she must endure the irony of seeing her son's heart donated to a patient in Coruna.

Distressed, she abandons Madrid and returns to Barcelona to seek out the father of her deceased son, a transvestite prostitute who looks vaguely like a rock star and is now HIV positive. In a series of coincidences that read like Fate, Manuela becomes a Dresser for Numa -- now also in Barcelona -- and supplants Numa's supporting actress/heroin lover as Stella in Streetcar. At the same time she takes in and nurses a young social worker, Sister Rosa, who is HIV and pregnant by... you guessed it, "Lola", the transgressing transsexualizer who was the father of her son seventeen, eighteen years earlier.

Art for Art's sake

While the live theatre scene world-wide has long been a refuge for the homosexual personality, the symbolisms about gender and social role-playing are so complex in this film they almost require a sexual cryptographer to figure them out. Once again, the subject of art is art itself. Rosa's mother is a Chagall forger, and her father a harmless madman who only has two lines for any woman (including Rosa) he meets: "How old are you?" followed by "How tall are you?"

Again, in the post-modern universe, the narrative operates as a play-within-a-play (or plays), confirming the perception that actors never leave the stage when the curtain falls. While this somewhat narrows this film's audience, and leaves one wondering about the apparent string of coincidences, the thespian in-breeding is legitimate. Manuela and her son Esteban watch an old Bette Davis movie, All About Eve... later Manuela reprises her early acting role as Stella, this time in Numa's production of Streetcar ("Just like Eve Harrington," snarls Nina, the junkie actress. "You learned the text on purpose!") and you learn that the father of her dead son once played the role of the macho Stanley Kowalski.

Ironic? Bizarrely....

One could certainly view Tennessee Williams' Blanche Du Bois as an exercise in cross-gender hysteria... but what about Numa's closing role as Yerma in her tribute to Lorca? The psychology of gender seems to resolve itself as a horizon image of Spain in political transition, just like Manuela's train flights between Madrid (black) and Barcelona (red). But who is to say? For non-Hispanics, the action becomes expressionism, reminiscent of Fellini, a burlesque in our dreams rather than our history.

No doubt Barcelona has a prostitute fairground just like "The Field"... yet as we visit it with Manuela on her search for Lola (the father of her dead son) it looks like Fellini. The putas display themselves in sex-game costumes as their customers circle the bonfire in cars, on motorcycles or on foot. They move counter-clockwise, as if in defiance of history and tradition. This circus action is repeated by Almovador when Manuela goes in search of Nina Cruz, the junkie actress. Here the misfits are performing their addictions around a bonfire in a small forgotten plaza somewhere in the derelict part of the city.

Manuela passes on her role as "Stella" to her real-life understudy in victimhood, the prostitute Agrado who is seeking a career change. "If the whores aren't bad enough, the drags are wiping us out," says Agrado. "They confuse transvestism with a circus."

The cinematography is extremely interesting, the editing digitally hip. In a deliberate homage to Garcia Lorca, the color red is maximized to symbolic intensity. Backgrounds, clothing, sunsets, blood -- even the diva Numa "Rojo" -- are used by Almodovar to massage this red vitalism into our consciousness. Transitions occur like blood and dream, a cinematic spacializing that gives the film a beautiful, bioplasmic rhythm despite the often tragic circumstances of the female characters.

The ending requires a two year shift in Time... never a satisfactory device in any sort of story narrative, but perhaps a unity that can be more easily violated in film. The women survive their madmen, their transvestites and dead children... as they do in Brecht and sometimes in Lorca. Red is an ambiguous color, for a sunset can also be a sunrise, the dawn of a new generation.

Almodovar closes with this dedication: "To all the women who have played actresses... who can act... to men who act and become women... to all the people who want to be mothers... to my mother."

LR 3/2000


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