All About My Mother was Pedro Almodovar's biggest splash in the world cinema pool when it was released in 1999, eventually even winning Almodovar an Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film. While not on the level of his subsequent masterpiece, 2002's Talk to Her, All About My Mother is a wonderful example of who Almodovar is as a writer/director. Telling the story of Manuela (Cecilia Roth) as she journey's into her past while trying to figure out her future. She runs across the whole gamut of emotions and experiences, as this movie explores issues of HIV/AIDS, transsexuals, lesbianism, pregnant nuns, organ donating, A Streetcar Named Desire, and everything in between. If that sounds like it borders on melodramatic campiness, you'd only be half right. Almodovar speaks in the language of melodrama and skirts right up to camp, but somehow sidesteps it with his remarkable humor and depth of characterization.
Manuela tragically loses her son Esteban (Eloy Azorin) while he's chasing after an autograph from famous stage actress Huma Rojo (Marisa Paredes) after seeing her perform the role of Blanche DuBois in Streetcar. Manuela travels from Madrid to Barcelona, to inform Esteban's father both of the son he never knew about, and the son's death. On her journey she comes across old friend Agrado (Antonia San Juan), a transsexual prostitute, who chides her for being gone for 18 years, but immediately forgives her and they pick back up as best friends. Through Agrado, Manuela meets the waifish Sister Rosa (Penelope Cruz), and the three of them get tangled up in the quietly broken life of Huma Rojo and her co-star/girlfriend/drug addict Nina (Candela Peña). "She's addicted to junk, and I'm addicted to her" Huma says at one point.
Again, this all comes so close to devolving into melodrama or camp, but Almodovar is such a master filmmaker that he (and his actors) instead imbues the characters with real life and weight so that instead of seeming like it's arch drama for drama's sake, it feels like the happenings in the lives of these people we don't often see in movies. How often are transsexuals given any quality play in a movie? Never like the hilarious, flighty, but good hearted Agrado. A pregnant nun like Penelope Cruz's character has had whole movies built around her before. Here in Almodovar's world, she's just part of the tapestry of life.
And just like I said about the brilliant Talk to Her, All About My Mother is almost overstuffed with LIFE. It may take it a bit to get going, but these characters look and act and feel like real people. Agrado doesn't stand out because she's a transsexual, she stands out because she's a fascinating, funny, warm person that we'd love to spend more time with. Manuela and Rosa won't stick out in my mind because of all the things they do in the movie, but because they feel as real as if this was a documentary. Almodovar's characters talk in interesting dialog, but they don't talk only of the plot, like in so many other movies. The plot of the movie happens to them like the plot of your life happens to you. And the actresses on wonderful display here really help sell that. It's extraordinary work from each and every one of them.
It's really a remarkable time at the movies to be able to spend in Almodovar's work. This being the fourth movie from him that I've seen, I'm very interested to explore more.