As a single mother, Manuela adores her son and marks the birthday with tickets to a performance of Tennessee Williams’s "A Streetcar Named Desire" and a copy of Truman Capote’s Music for Chameleons. Already in bed, Esteban asks his mother to read to him, the way she did when he was a child. She reads only a sentence or two from Capote’s autobiographical preface, in which he describes the pain of an artist’s life. She cannot bear the thought of Esteban’s subjecting himself to such an arduous career.
These early scenes from All About My Mother mark an enormous transition for the bad boy of Spanish cinema, whose most popular work in this country was "Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown" (1988). No longer reveling in his reputation as a cynic and social iconoclast, in this film Pedro Almodóvar establishes himself as a major postmodern artist. He bases this current film not only on life, but on his audience’s familiarity with earlier artifacts whose themes he can reiterate, examine and modify. The film and the play portray women searching for worth and identity in a hostile world, while the Capote essay points out the artist’s unending struggle to report the truth. By writing on his audience, the film maker testifies that his relationship to his audience is more important than his relationship to his work.
The shifting point of view continually challenges us to reevaluate what we see. In the opening sequence, Manuela sits at a desk in a modern urban hospital, coolly arranging organ transplants from dying patients. The procedures imaged by banks of the latest high-tech equipment are a miracle of contemporary medical practice. But there is more. Manuela is so good at her work that she participates in workshops for the hospital staff, acting out the role of a survivor faced with a series of decisions for a loved one no longer capable of making such choices. Science has its human side, and the surgeons must learn to deal with families as well as with their patients’ machinery. Finally, the decision comes into Manuela’s own life with a terrifying urgency that renders all her earlier professional experience useless. What, Almodóvar asks us, is the reality of the situation we see on the screen? Science, technique or humanity?
In an effort to regain some sense of equilibrium in her life after her trauma, Manuela leaves the antiseptic cocoon of her Madrid hospital, the scene of her most agonizing memories, and travels to Barcelona. At this point in her life it is important for her to locate the father of her son, whom she has not seen since before the boy was born. Almodóvar shows that this journey passes through memory and into the depths of her soul by photographing an endless tunnel as seen from the front of a speeding train. As she plunges through the darkness, what do we really know about her?
In Barcelona, Manuela tours the underworld of the sex and drug trades. Is it possible that this competent medical professional and dedicated mother once inhabited this universe herself? She remembers how to direct the cab driver to the city’s notorious place of assignation. In a scene worthy of Federico Fellini, Almodóvar shows customers and vendors slowly circling one another in what might be described as a grotesque carousel of degradation. The headlights, however, give the milling crowd an oddly beautiful look.
This scene marks a transition not only in the film but in Almodóvar’s growth as an artist. In the earlier films, he seemed to visit the world of prostitutes, lechers and drag queens on a tourist visa. They were clowns, mere spectacles presented to visitors as a kind of morbid amusement to be enjoyed at a distance. In this film, by contrast, he shows a profound humanism, not quite a Christian humanism based on the value of the human person as a creature of God, but more a zany postmodern humanism of nonjudgmental respect. These women and female impersonators have individual lives, suffer humiliation, make the best of bad situations and keep going and try to create life even though the deck of life’s cruel poker game holds no aces for them.
On the fringes of this circle of hell, Manuela rescues Agrado (Antonia San Juan) from an angry client. Agrado was born male but underwent a series of surgical enhancements to become more attractive to potential customerswhich, when discovered, drives her current partner to violence. Agrado plays the part of a woman, as does Huma Rojo (Marissa Paredes), an actress of some years, who plays Blanche Dubois in the touring company of "A Streetcar Named Desire" that has recently come to Barcelona. Manuela has played this role in amateur productions and is fascinated by Blanche. She sees Huma’s version so often that all the lines come back to her. Huma is romantically involved with her co-star, a young woman with a serious addiction to heroin.
With Agrado’s encouragement, Manuela visits a shelter for battered women, hoping that the sisters will help her find a job other than hospital work. Her case worker is Sister Rosa (Penelope Cruz), a beautiful young woman whose father is rapidly losing touch with reality and whose unfeeling mother could have commanded a firing squad in Franco’s army. Sister Rosa tries to fill her life with the nurturing she never received at home. Perhaps her desire to nurture spins out of control. In the mornings she suffers nausea and thinks it may be better to move into Manuela’s apartment for a few months.
Through Manuela’s journey through the underworld, Almodóvar tries to explore the meaning of "woman." His heroine’s voyage to the inner realms of the psyche enables him to visit all kinds of women as they search for meaning in their lives. They dwell on the fringes of ultimate questions, givers of life, yet ever aware that death cannot be far away. For Almodóvar, who is openly homosexual, the paradox of life and death becomes all the more poignant in this age of AIDS, especially as it affects the gay, the promiscuous and the addicted, all of whom play prominent roles on his stage.
Almodóvar dedicates "All About My Mother" to actresses who have played actresses: Gena Rolands, Bette Davis, Romy Schneider, perhaps as a way of suggesting that all women struggle to create roles for themselves, and by so doing make human life possible and worth the effort. As an unreconstructed chauvinist, I’d like to suggest that a post-feminist reading of the text holds equal claim to our attention. In this film Pedro Almodóvar unearths the universal struggle to find love and meaning. All of us, men and women alike, search for more agreeable identities than the ones forced upon us and play our roles hoping at last to find one that fits. We rummage through our mental file cabinets of plays, films and books, compare ourselves to others (who we assume are happier than we) and try to make our way through life as best we can. Maybe men are just better at hiding their devious purposes, and their pain. "All About My Mother" is all about all of us.
Richard A. Blake, S.J.