It would be easy to misread Pedro Almodóvar’s1999 film All About My Mother as nothing more than a playfully transgressive romp, in which absurd characters misbehave with wild abandon for comic effect. This is, in fact, what Almodóvar seemed to be after in several of his earlier movies, such as the wonderfully madcap Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, or the nuns-and-drugs farce Dark Habits. On the surface, All About My Mother is no different: it tells the story of Manuela (Cecilia Roth), a grief-stricken woman who moves to Barcelona in order to stalk an aging actress (Marisa Paredes) who played a role in the accidental death of her son. Meanwhile, Manuela renews her decades-old friendship with a transvestite prostitute (Antonia San Juan) and also becomes the caretaker and adoptive mother for an ailing, pregnant nun (Penelope Cruz). It’s an improbable, even ridiculous premise, and it becomes even more so as the plot piles on absurdities on the way to an unlikely and highly melodramatic ending.
Yet at the same time, All About My Mother is an uncommonly moving film, and it contains moments of rapturous beauty and genuine power. As Manuela searches for her old friend Agrado (San Juan) in Barcelona’s seamy backstreets, the camera rises up into the sky in order to look down on a group of prostitutes being circled by johns in their cars. The shot is a grand gesture, fit for a moment of great triumph in a sweeping epic—and in the context of Almodóvar’s comically gritty premise, it comes off as audacious in its unexpectedness, and also outrageously beautiful. In All About My Mother, Almodóvar brings all the emotionally lush grandeur of cinematic art to bear on characters and subject matter that many artists would treat only with pity or laughter. Although the film often is funny and absurd, Almodóvar imbues every shot with passionate artistry and a deep-running, non-condescending affection for his characters.
All About My Mother closes with a loving dedication: “To Bette Davis, Gena Rowlands, Romy Schneider…To all actresses who have played actresses, to all women who act, to men who act and become women, to all people who want to become mothers. To my mother.” Almodóvar is the all-too-rare male filmmaker who makes movies about women. His female characters are far more than just objects of desire for male protagonists; instead, women’s lives, wants, and stories are the central concerns of nearly all of his films. All About My Mother contains several rich, multi-dimensional, and meaty female parts, all of which Almodóvar presents with the self-conscious intention of paying tribute to great women of cinema’s past. The movie’s title is an explicit allusion to All About Eve, and Almodóvar also borrows much of its plot, while at the same time weaving in extended allusions to A Streetcar Named Desire and passing references to artists, writers, and filmmakers ranging from Mark Chagall to Oscar Wilde.
Almodóvar’s point here is not to prove his self-conscious postmodern cleverness. Instead, he treats his allusions with the same intense affection that he directs toward his characters. Almodóvar understands that love for art is at its core an expression of love for life and for all of humanity, and he wants to show us that every woman—every grieving mother, every transvestite prostitute, every pregnant nun—deserves the same kind of boundless, overflowing love that movie audiences routinely offer up to stars on screen. All About My Mother is a great film because it uses its self-conscious allusions not to create cold, sophisticated ironies, but instead to provide audiences with a passionate, open-armed reminder of art’s power to transform our small lives and desires into grand-scale collective visions of beauty and love. Ryan Williams