My Mother, Myself

Pedro Almodóvar pays tribute to female resilience in All About My Mother

Everything that rises must converge, they say. I'm not really sure what that means, but it's a hell of a pretty sentiment, one with the faint fragrance of hope about it. Like E.M. Forster's mandate at the opening of his elegy to the Romantic age, Howards End: "Only connect." Or even the way the last Beatles album opens with a song called "Come Together." When you feel the end of a difficult and precious age nearing, coming together suddenly seems like the only thing worth doing. What was it all about, all the toil and loss, if it wasn't about coming together?

It's easy to be magnanimous when you're on top. It's easy to be humane, reasonable, and tolerant when you've won the war. This is why rock stars who don't die usually end up making lousy music, since those aforementioned virtues are the very antithesis of rock. Fortunately for movie directors, film is a medium that can benefit a little more from maturity. The Beatles notwithstanding, most bands wither and whimper unto death, and their last albums suck. But late-period movies are uniquely positioned for triumph.

Pedro Almodóvar's All About My Mother has the feel of a late-period movie. So what does that mean? Well, you know the theory that all religions are based on the same principle--love one another? It may be reductive, but I'm buying it. Likewise, I'm noticing that a solid handful of really good directors hone a unique vision over a lifetime but wind up resembling each other by the end, in spirit if nothing else. I hate to get too easy about this, but at some point, good directors usually end up creating celluloid monuments to their own romantic compassion for humanity. They gyrate around it and gradually migrate toward it, unable to resist the magnetic pull of spiritual convergence with their characters.

Thing is, that sentiment is probably the most difficult to get right. Witness Steven Spielberg's smarmier moments, or the cheesy "Can't we all just get along?" vibe of a movie like Grand Canyon--the easy victories of innumerable feel-gooders that leave one feeling lonelier than ever, our darkest places ignored. A real lover takes your hand and walks with you into that dark place; a real movie does the same. First movies are sexy miracles of style, and thank God for them. But later movies truly test a director's love and skill.

I hope All About My Mother isn't Pedro Almodóvar's last movie. But it does mark a plateau, taking a wide view of the same landscape that he has been charting for years. Mind you, this isn't the greatest movie of the year. But it's a good one, in the most difficult way. Almodóvar's fascination with the hunter-gatherer voodoo of courtship (Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!, Live Flesh, etc.) was righteous if not always convincing. But he's well beyond that now. As suggested in The Flower of My Secret, he has lost his hetero-stroking taste for female bodies, and his weird crush on guns and chaos. He may even have lost his male point of view, at least temporarily. In All About My Mother, the lead character says that her transgendered ex-lover has all the worst qualities of both sexes. Maybe Almodóvar has the best of both.

The story deals with Manuela (Cecilia Roth), a single mother whose beloved teenage son is run over by a car. (The accident occurs when he is chasing autographs from the lead actress in a production of A Streetcar Named Desire. Almodóvar is still the king of hyperbolic theatricality.) Manuela returns to Barcelona, the city of her youth, to inform the boy's long-lost father and perhaps to put her own life back together. Once there, she finds that she's hardly the only one whose life has fallen apart in a cubist disaster. In coming to the aid of others, helping those who rely on the kindness of strangers, she finds new life.

One of those people is Agrado (Antonia San Juan), a partially transgendered prostitute (basically, she's a woman with a penis) and Manuela's oldest friend. Agrado has managed to retain her dignity without bitterness, and to find a livable social mezzanine between genders. But she wants to quit prostitution. Manuela may be the movie's heroine, but Agrado is the one who lingers in the memory. She has a dry wit and a dirty mouth, like all movie drag queens, but her best quality has little to do with the script and everything to do with the actor. She begins the film looking wounded and strange, with an almost comically distorted face. (Her nose veers to the right, thanks to a beating, we learn; her eyes are slightly crossed.) As she describes the costs of keeping up with the latest in rhinoplasty, her vanity seems merely pathetic. But over the course of two hours, it becomes clear that vanity is just the outer layer of a genuine, internally rooted pride that will ultimately reinvent Agrado's life according to its own nature. She gradually suffuses the space around her with grace, and by the end of the film, she's gorgeous. Her message: The more we try to become what we want to be, the more authentic we are. It's an almost-too-lovely lesson, but Agrado has earned the right to believe it.

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