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.

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.

 

All About My Mother is playing at the Uptown Theatre.

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