Mothers have long played a central part in Spanish director Pedro Almodóvar’s films. Through his lens, the world is principally a matriarchal society, and the mothers at its center are forceful, devoted and passionately committed to the nurturing of their children, however flawed their notions of that duty or however crazy the world around them. His most recent (as of this writing) and most autobiographical feature, Pain and Glory (2019), detailed his relationship with his own mother, and motherhood has been a central focus of films as divergent as What Have I Done to Deserve This? (1984), Volver (2006) and Julieta (2016). His potential next release, projected for production in 2021, is Madres paralelas, about two women who give birth the same day, with Penélope Cruz once again stepping into one of his maternal roles.
The standout, however, in this brilliant repertoire is All About My Mother (1999). Filled with references to gay authors like Tennessee Williams and Truman Capote and old movies like All About Eve (1950), this is a work with more love, valor and compassion (to borrow another gay author’s words) than most films even attempt to contain – more color, humor and wildly diverse and complex characters, too.
A nurse and single mother watches as her teenage son is fatally struck by a car. The grieving woman travels from Madrid to Barcelona to find the boy’s long-absent father and tell him of their son’s death. Through a series of encounters, she finds herself taking on the role of matriarch to a surrogate family that includes a pregnant, HIV-positive nun (Cruz in a different kind of mother role), a famous stage star and her heroin-addicted lover and a transgender sex worker.
Critic Roger Ebert put it best in his 1999 review: “These are people who stand outside conventional life and its rules, and yet affirm them. Families are where you find them and how you make them, and home, it's said, is the place where, if you have to go there, they have to take you in.”
Almodóvar has created something of a cinematic family as well and a female stock company of much acclaim. Besides Cruz (in six of his films so far), the cast includes a one of his most frequent players, Argentinian Cecilia Roth (as Manuela, the teenager’s mother), who has worked with him eight times; this is her first lead for him (if this ensemble can be said to have a lead) since Labyrinth of Passion (1982). Marisa Paredes, who has been in six Almodóvar pictures, plays Huma Rojo, the stage star.
Critics have noted the real find in the cast is Antonia San Juan, who plays the transgender sex worker Agrado. Ebert rightly pointed out that while Manuela may be the story’s protagonist, “Agrado is the source of life.” San Juan takes center stage, literally, in a beautiful scene where she must announce to the audience for one of Huma’s performances that the star cannot appear and the show has been cancelled. She calms the hostile crowd with a monologue about her own life and her gender transition.
The film doubles reality here. San Juan (considered a gender-variant performer though she declines to discuss it) made her name in Spain performing stand-up and cabaret monologues, much as her character does. It has also been claimed that the scene was based on a real-life event. When an Argentinian theater had to cancel a show because of a technical breakdown, famed actress Lola Membrives stood in front of the audience and asked them to stay as she shared the story of her life.
All About My Mother won the Academy Award for what was then called Best Foreign Language Film and the Golden Globe and BAFTA in the same category, along with numerous honors from critics’ societies and film festivals, including the Palme d’Or at Cannes.
Almodóvar gave playwright Samuel Adamson his support and approval for a stage adaptation that premiered at the Old Vic in London's West End in September 2007 to generally good reviews. The film score by Alberto Iglesias was used in the stage production, with additional music by Max and Ben Ringham. It starred Diana Rigg (On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, 1969; Game of Thrones) as the stage star, Lesley Manville (Another Year, 2010; Phantom Thread, 2017) as the grieving mother, Mark Gatiss (Sherlock) as the transgender sex worker and Joanne Froggatt (Downtown Abbey) as the nun.
The richness of this film cannot be overstated. It is at once funny parody and sincere drama, delirious and absurd, shot through with evocations of memory and longing, deeply emotional and outrageously entertaining. It’s all about acting and dreaming, grieving and moving on, and, of course, motherhood. It is, as Emma Wilson put it in her Criterion Collection essay, “the most exquisitely moving film that Almodóvar has made.”
Director: Pedro Almodóvar
Executive Producer: Agustín Almodóvar
Screenplay: Pedro Almodóvar
Cinematography: Affonso Beato
Editing: José Salcedo
Art Direction: Antxón Gómez
Music: Alberto Iglesias
Cast: Cecilia Roth (Manuela), Marisa Paredes (Huma Rojo), Candela Peña (Nina), Antonia San Juan (Agrado), Penélope Cruz (Hermana Rosa)
By Rob Nixon