In Almodovar’s film, All About My Mother, the issue of homosexuality is continuously prevalent. Because the film takes place in 1999 in Spain, it can greatly be paralleled to the country’s legislation policies, as well as the public attitudes towards homosexuality at the specific time period. As the characters continue to develop, it becomes clearer for the audience to realize that the homosexual community is completely dissimilar from the rest of the Spanish society. In many elements of the film, correlations can be derived that parallel the movie to the situation in modern day Spain.
The story of the gay movement happens to be somewhat complicated, especially during the twentieth century. In 1984, the first gay liberation movement occurred in Spain, along with the AIDS epidemic. It was because of this that gays were automatically associated with having the disease, although in most cases, they usually chose to deny the claim. As the years continued into the nineties, the gay communities of Spain came together to organize a proper response to the AIDS epidemic. By 1994, the number of AIDS diagnosed people had visibly decreased, which was a remarkable improvement for the gay community. The next milestone in Spain’s homosexual history took place in 1999, the same year that All About My Mother was released. At this time, “64 percent of new AIDS cases were among intravenous drug users, and only 15.5 percent of these cases were men who had sex with men” (Maddison 1). Regardless, the stigma that gay men are infected with AIDS still exists, and therefore, the context of the film is strongly influenced by the current attitude of the Spanish people. In the film, both Lola and Sister Rosa are diagnosed with HIV/AIDS, which further emphasizes that the film takes place during the time period of the AIDS epidemic.
After the release of his film, Hollywood critics described Almodovar as a “women’s director” because of the female-identified melodrama and obvious homosexuality portrayed in All About My Mother. These themes do tend to attract an audience with a female majority. Almodovar manages to attract this audience by “connecting the visible world of nursing, theatre, and middle-class motherhood to the subterranean world of prostitution, transsexualism, heroin use, and AIDS” (Beller 1). By doing so, Almodovar successfully depicts a dramatic contradiction that can easily be paralleled to the events taking place in real Spanish urban life. All About My Mother can simply be described as an intervention in the construction of sexuality in Spanish society. The film works to explore the limits and contradictions of the passions that the world may not consider to be ‘civilized’; that is, the sexual desire for another of the same gender.
In the beginning of the film, the audience is immediately brought into an unusual sexual, yet political atmosphere. When Esteban, who is seventeen years old, asks his mother, Manuela, if she would prostitute herself for him, she replies that she has already done everything she possibly could. At this point, the presence of sexuality is somewhat apparent and the viewer can most likely see the tension that exists between the two characters (Beller 2). Not soon after, Esteban is hit by a car, and dies directly in front of Manuela. This causes Manuela to recede back into the world that she had previously been a part of, the world that she had been protecting her son from. In fact, this universe is that of sex workers, transsexuals, and prostitutes from which she had fled to find a middle-class, normal life for her son to grow up in. The movie clearly illustrates how different Manuela’s life is when her son dies, which makes it easier to understand what life was like as a homosexual in Spain. Once she begins to act in the play, A Streetcar Named Desire, Manuela reminisces about her past life, and slowly re-enters her old life with the transgenders, HIV-positive nun, and actors that she used to befriend. Together, the characters are able to overcome their individual issues and by releasing their own creativity, they can satisfy their physical and emotional desires.
To further examine the symbolism of the film, the fact that Manuela chose to hide the truth about Lola, Esteban’s transsexual father, proves the fact that homosexuality was looked down upon at this time in Spain. However, because Almodovar chose to develop his characters in such a positive light, the audience may forget the existence of such strong discrimination against homosexuals. The characters prove to have “individual lives, suffer humiliation, make the best of bad situations, and keep going to try to create life”, regardless of how the public feels towards them (Blake 1). Furthermore, the characters seem to be living in a nonjudgmental society because even though the Spanish community seems to hold nothing in store for them, they still try to make their lives as enjoyable as possible. The women and ‘wanna-be’ women bond over their yearning to live their lives with authenticity.
When All About My Mother was first released, film critics were skeptical as to what the public would have to say. Because religion is very important in Spain, specifically the Catholic religion, many would assume that the film would be rejected due to its theme of homosexuality. Surprisingly, two ministers actually went to Hollywood with Pedro Almodovar to receive his Oscar for the best foreign film in the year 2000 (“Spain’s enfant not-so-terrible” 1). Congratulatory telegrams were even sent to Almodovar from King Juan Carlos and Spain’s conservative prime minister, even though at the beginning of his career, Almodovar was viewed as “Spain’s artistic enfant” because of his sexual preference. In fact, if the film were made in the 1970s, the chance of it being accepted by the Spanish audience would be slim to none.
In the seventies, an underground movement took place in Madrid called the movida, meaning “the action”. The movement was led by Almodovar himself, and aimed to destroy the “normal” sexual and cultural civilization established by General Franco’s sternly Catholic and moralistic regime (“Spain’s enfant not-so-terrible” 1). Even today, people are still surprised by the tolerance of the Spanish people. Although General Francisco Franco’s regime ended with his death in 1975, at the time, censorship caused the nation to be extremely conservative (Jahiel 1). In other words, Franco, the leader of Spain at the time, enforced strict regulations to enforce that the country remain loyal to the Catholic religion, and therefore, disapproved of homosexuality altogether. Almodovar worked to bring homosexuality into the public eye and would openly ‘party’ to it as well. While this faction disgusted the majority of Spain, in All About My Mother, Almodovar still managed to incorporate the idea of motherhood, family, and the importance of home as experienced by the Spanish culture. It is because of this that Spaniards were able to accept the film when it was released, rather than completely disapprove of it.
Generally speaking, Almodovar does strongly incorporate the culture of Spain into his film, All About My Mother. While in some scenes, he makes it fairly obvious, such as Manuela’s trip to Madrid, in which she encounters the gathering of prostitutes, other scenes must be interpreted in order to perceive the cultural context. Almodovar purposely builds the characters in an upbeat manner so that the audience can recognize that though they may be ‘different’, they still attempt to live their lives as ordinary as they can, regardless of what the Spanish society may think.