CANNES ’99 REVIEW: Almodovar’s Colorful and Irreverant “Mother” is a Powerful and Rewarding Drama
by Stephen Garrett
Continuing and enriching the more seriously dramatic career arc that began with 1995’s “The Flower of My Secret” and 1997’s “Live Flesh,” Spanish director Pedro Almodovar delivers once again with “All About My Mother (Todo sobre mi madre),” a subtly powerful and emotionally rewarding story of a woman who loses her teenage son and finds new life in the remnants of her past. Festival reception at the film’s first public screening was warm, though not
overwhelming, with solid applause for the filmmaker’s first official competition entry at Cannes.
The masterly handling of each of the five principal actresses again illustrates Almodovar’s brilliance as a director of women, and his original screenplay deftly downplays its potential for melodramatic hyperbole while punctuating his special brand of “Almodrama” with the trademark irreverence (a chummy world of transsexuals, whores, nuns, and drug addicts) that so defined his earlier films. The movie’s CinemaScope aspect ratio rightly
showcases cinematographer Affonso Beato, who also shot “Flower” and “Flesh”
for Almodovar; and the director’s insistence on bold, vibrant colors in the production design is, as always, a delight. Early pre-screening festival buzz had the film pegged as a Palme d’Or contender, but the ultimately conventional emotional scale of the picture compromises its chances for the top prize (though it certainly remains a hands-on favorite for acting, script, and helming awards).
Dedicated at the end to women like Romy Schneider and Bette Davis (whose “All About Eve” is the loving inspiration for the film’s title), “Mother” explores the shattered world of Manuela (Cecilia Roth), a single parent in Madrid whose 17-year old son Esteban is hit by a car on the night of his birthday, just after seeing a performance of “A Streetcar Named Desire” and trying to get an autograph of the play’s middle-aged diva Huma Rojo (Marisa Paredes). Haunted by the event, Manuela seeks closure by returning to Barcelona, where
years before she became pregnant with Esteban, to look for her son’s father, a transsexual named Lola who doesn’t know about the child they shared.
Her first stop in Barcelona is an outdoor cruising site where she used to turn tricks as a street walker. There, she connects with her old friend Agrado (Antonia San Juan), a transsexual hooker with a heart of gold looking for a change of profession. While job hunting, the pair meet Sister Rosa (Penelope Cruz), an angel-faced nun who broke her vow of chastity with (coincidentally) Lola, and now is not only pregnant but also has AIDS. Manuela also becomes distracted by the arrival of the “Streetcar” production to Barcelona, and she watches the play again — doubly resonant for her, not only because of Esteban, but also since she was an actress in her youth and performed in the play as well.
After the show ends, Manuela goes backstage and accidentally meets, then befriends, Huma, who herself is an emotional mess because of her lesbian love affair with Nina, a fellow actress in the troupe who is also a heroin junkie (“she wants drugs and I want her,” moans Huma in a moment of melancholy). Huma hires Manuela to be her assistant, and Manuela settles into her life in Barcelona as well as her search for Lola.
The quintet make for an unlikely support group, but like most dysfunctional families, the ladies become an emotional salve for each other despite their disparate life choices; and the ultimate meeting between Manuela and Lola, as well as her disclosure about their son, makes for poignant filmmaking that in lesser hands would have become easily maudlin and risible. “You have to have heart,” explained Almodovar in the press conference that followed the screening, by way of explaining the tightrope of pathos that his film confidently strides. “You have to have a great deal of sincerity about what you’re doing.” And indeed he does: as a deeply felt, witty, and surprisingly complex tribute to the Hollywood and South American melodramas of the past and as a handsome addition to the mature work of his own career, Almodovar’s “Mother” is a sweet, stirring accomplishment.