“ALL ABOUT MY MOTHER” (“Todo Sobre Mi Madre”)
The Nature of Motherhood
Manuela (Cecilia Roth) is a hard-working nurse from Argentina who has been assigned donor organ transplants in the Ramón y Cajal Hospital from Madrid. She is totally dedicated to her profession and is also a single mother to her teenager soon, Esteban (Eloy Azorín). Esteban is a talented writer who hopes that he will one day become famous. However, on his seventeenth birthday, he attempts to get the autograph of renowned actress, Huma Rojo (Marisa Paredes), and gets hit by a car in the process. He dies on the spot and Manuela is struck by grief, self-hatred and despair. She also has to agree to having her son’s heart transplanted and sent to a patient in A Coruña. After ensuring that the man receives her child’s organ, Manuela quits her job and travels to Barcelona in hopes of tracking down Esteban’s father, Lola (Toni Cantó), a transvestite who works in the area.
In Barcelona she meets a variety characters, including Hermana Rosa (Penélope Cruz), a nun who takes care of battered prostitutes, an old friend, Agrado (Antonia San Juan), who is a transgender sex worker, a lady who is addicted to drugs, Nina Cruz (Candela Peña), as well as the actress who indirectly lead to her son’s accident.
In this film there is little difference between what is real and what is fake. After Manuela agrees to donate his organs she decides to fulfill her son’s wish to find the boy’s father and she goes back to Barcelona, where she came from 18 years ago. She had lost all contact with the father while in Madrid and will try to retrace her steps.
However, before Manuela goes on the journey she must see who received her son’s heart and is relieved to see it is a decent fellow. she watches him leave the hospital and overhears him from her hiding place gleefully talking about having a young man’s heart him in. To visually show Manuela’s path back and forth from Barcelona to Madrid, there is a stunningly photographed tunnel looking very much like a womb with a train racing through it.
In Barcelona, Manuela meets again her friend Agrado, a transvestite prostitute, working in an outdoor area known as the Field, where the customers ride around in a circle to look the odd at the assortment of male and female prostitutes. Symbolically this indicates that Manuela’s life is going around in circles, she is back to where she started as a prostitute. Agrado was an actor with her in an amateur production of a play by Tennessee Williams; he was a man then but has since had breast implants and a complete makeover to look like a woman. He is upset because his transvestite lover, who used to be called Esteban but now is Lola has just run away from him. Lola also happens to be another actor in that amateur play 18 years ago that Agrado and Manuela were in and is the father of Manuela’s child. But he doesn’t know that.
This is a story with many different themes: its subplots take us into organ donors, AIDS, coincidences, family relationships, family values, and the effects of pop culture on the public but, the film’s main themes are praising actresses, praising motherhood, praising sexual ambiguity, and praising the kindness from strangers (tolerance of all people seems to be the strongest message in the film).
I am not sure whether the film is to be taken as a parody or a tragic soap opera. This is a story about women as actresses and as mothers and as sexually ambiguous figures. It is paradoxical: men can be actresses also. The cinematography and the array of colors displayed are simply dazzling. This film could be enjoyed solely for its bright orange, red and yellow patterns as the camera is constantly moving from one thing of beauty to another. It is a film made by someone who has the self-confidence to know who he is and who realizes that his film will mean different things to different people:
The film’s strength is in the emotions of the characters; their close-ups revealing an inner strength in them that no matter what they’ve been through, they will stick together and not give in to their overwhelming problems. Agrado, after being battered by a psychopath, gets dressed in her imitation pink Chanel dress and takes Manuela to meet the attractive Sister Rosa (Penélope Cruz) in the prostitute’s shelter. In return Agrado is consoled by the empathetic Manuela. A pregnant nun in an Almodóvar film shouldn’t be that surprising to his fans, in fact what else should they expect! The father of Sister Rosa’s child, by coincidence, is Lola, the same father of Manuela’s child. The anguished Sister Rosa will come to live in the apartment that Manuela rents and be nursed by the woman who is both a tower of strength and a fragile grieving mother.
The actors are all excellent especially Marisa Paredes’ subtle but invigorating performance. The aging actress has a certain air about her that enlivened every scene she was in, showing how vulnerable and engaging an actress she is. Cecilia Roth is the glue that held the film together. But when the spotlight is on Marisa, what the director was trying to say about actresses has a clarity about it.