[box cover]

All About My Mother (Todo sobre mi madre)

Columbia TriStar Home Video

Starring Cecilia Roth, Marisa Paredes, Penelope Cruz,
Candela Pena, and Antonia San Juan

Written and directed by Pedro Almodovar

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Review by Dawn Taylor                    

I love Pedro Almodovar's films, but they certainly are difficult to describe. Suggest a friend see Matador, for example, and they inevitably respond with "What's it about?" Well, it's about a matador ... and angels ... and masturbation. Sort of. Or take Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! — an adequate explanation of that one can take 45 minutes, because "mental patient kidnaps a former porn star/junkie, slaps her around some, then ties her to a bed; actually, he just wants to get married and have kids" doesn't cover it — even if that really is (I kid you not) Leonard Martin's description.

Almodovar's films are about so much more than just the story line, and explaining what, precisely, they are about can be tricky. All About My Mother is the story of a woman whose son is killed and — in the process of finding the boy's long-abandoned father — ends up playing mother-figure to a pregnant nun, a pre-op transsexual, and two lesbian actresses (one a junkie). Oh, and it's funny and heart-warming. But that doesn't even begin to cover what the film is actually about.

The DVD's enclosed booklet offers Almodovar's explanation of the film's premise: "My idea at the beginning was to make a movie about the capacity to act of certain people who are not actors. As a child, I remembered seeing that quality in some of the women in my family. They faked more and better than men. And through their lies they managed to avoid more than one tragedy ..." He goes on to say that the subject of the film is "the capacity of women to playact. And wounded maternity. And spontaneous solidarity between women." See what I mean?

Manuela (Cecelia Roth) is a nurse, working at a hospital as a transplant coordinator, and training doctors to deal with families of potential organ donors. We see her at home with her son, Esteban, watching All About Eve on television. Esteban comments that the Spanish title — Eve Unveiled — is wrong. "It should be 'Todo Sobre Eva'," he tells her. "They always get it wrong." "But that sounds odd," Manuela replies, as Almodovar's title splashes across the screen: Todo sobre mi madre. The small joke becomes apparent as the film unfolds, for the story is not so much "all about (Esteban's) mother" as it is about pretense and unveiling.

When Esteban is struck by a car while seeking an autograph from a famous actress (Marisa Paredes), she travels to Barcelona to find her son's father, whom she left while she was pregnant. The women that she encounters and bonds with on her search all survive through artifice: Agrado (Antonio San Juan), a transvestite prostitute who says — when asked if her Chanel suit is real — "All I have that's real are my feelings — and these pints of silicone that weigh a ton"; Sister Rosa (Penelope Cruz), a nun who works with battered prostitutes and is hiding her pregnancy from her mother; Paredes as actress Huma Rojo, a stage name meaning "Red Smoke" and inspired by Bette Davis's ever-present cigarette; and Huma's lover Nina (Candela Pena) who is hiding a heroin addiction. Even Sister Rose's mother lives a life of pretense, catering to the fantasies of her husband who is addled by Alzheimer's.

The hub around which all of this revolves is, oddly enough, Tennessee William's play A Streetcar Named Desire — itself a play about a woman who survives by using artifice and deception. Manuela met Esteban's father while doing an amateur version of the play, and it is after a performance of Streetcar that Esteban is killed. Huma and Nina play Blanche and Stella, respectively, and when Nina is too dope-sick to go on one night, Manuela fills in (which leads to Nina angrily accusing Manuela of deliberately sabotaging her, ala All About Eve). And like Streetcar, All About My Mother examines the lengths women will go to for their families — even extended, chosen families like the one Manuela has formed with Rosa, Agrado, Huma and Nina.

While Roth — a beautiful, 40-ish actress with a remarkable Helen Mirren sort of quality — keeps Manuela firmly anchored as the film's center, San Juan's turn as Agrado is the real life of the film. She is relentlessly upbeat — even after being beaten senseless by a john — and offers the film's most important (and funniest) moment. After announcing that an evening's performance of Streetcar has been cancelled, Agrado proceeds to entertain the audience with a capsule story of her life to date, detailing her surgeries and the various areas which have been silicone-enhanced. "It costs a lot to be authentic — and one can't be stingy about these things," she says. "Because you are more authentic the more you resemble what you dream of being."

Almodovar dedicates the film to Bette Davis, Gena Rowlands, Romy Schneider and "to all actresses who play actresses." All About My Mother is a love letter to women and actresses, and a compelling exploration of the ways in which they are one and the same.

— Dawn Taylor

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