My Mother, Myself

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

The film has plenty of classic Almodóvar signifiers: organ-transplant counselors, junkies and ex-junkies, characters who reveal hidden artistic talents in moments of crisis, babies who symbolize redemption, reversals of fortune, and lots of girl talk. But its raison d'être is bigger than ever. He's using female lives to tell a story about Life. This is androgynous cinema. Part of his strategy is to make sure that most characters do exactly what we least expect. A young man dies. A father turns out to be a "woman." Someone with HIV loses HIV. Fortunately, the miracles do not come cheap, and the reversals are not uniformly neat. Where some of Almodóvar's plots seem implausible and cartoonish, this one is so unpredictable and elegantly dissonant that it actually feels like real life, albeit slightly heightened. I don't want to describe too many events, because much of the film's pleasure lies in its gradual revelations and stream-of-circumstance surprises--people die, move away, get sick, change jobs, try to save each other, and then save themselves. Chance meetings take on cosmic significance over the course of several years. No one is ever the same.

It should be noted that, even more than Almodóvar's other films, All About My Mother is enraptured by strong women. Unlike his alpha boys of the past, every male character here, besides Agrado, is marked for death and marginalized in the story line. (Not that the gender-bending is overromanticized--another transsexual character is a pretty awful person.) Almodóvar seems not only bored with men, but actually annoyed when he thinks of them at all. His attempts to get inside the world of women--their private conversations, their greatest disappointments and victories--feel like the wriggling of someone yearning to escape his own skin. After some of the two-dimensional female characters in his earlier films, this is a welcome evolution. And it's fun to see the female principle asserted through a bold male lens. But if I were a man, even a gay man, I might feel a little slighted. Maybe that's part of his point.

Almodóvar says that, to him, "three or four women sitting around talking represent the origin of life, and of fiction." So the film is an overt tribute, but its homage doesn't trivialize--it magnifies. He celebrates women in order to celebrate the qualities that he loves in people, perhaps even in himself: a reedy emotional flexibility that transcends most crises, and a generative spunk that makes life happen. And because its twists so closely resemble the crazy cadences of real life (at least as I know it), All About My Mother starts to feel like a love letter, addressed to the friction between people's external circumstance and their internal reality--the sexual friction that creates art, and also life stories. Maybe artists--and mothers, and people on the borders of genders--understand this friction a little better, because they have to. Maybe, Almodóvar seems to say, they have something to teach everyone, men especially. Agrado's life lesson can be put another way: The more you try to become what you want to be, the more you become what you're meant to be. The director's own current state of grace is further evidence of that.

In the beginning: The generative women of All About My Mother
In the beginning: The generative women of All About My Mother


All About My Mother is playing at the Uptown Theatre.

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