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The Boston Phoenix On the Verge

Pedro Almodóvar flirts with a hit

By Scott Heller

DECEMBER 28, 1999:  Only in the bent screen world of Pedro Almodóvar do you find a movie plot like this: Manuela (Cecilia Roth), an elegant nurse, watches helplessly as her beloved teenage son Estéban (Eloy Azorin) is killed by an oncoming automobile. She leaves Madrid for Barcelona to share the bad news with the father Estéban never knew -- a transvestite now known as Lola (Toni Cantó). A histrionic gender-bending prostitute who once roomed with Lola helps Manuela, who in turn takes under her wing a young nun who ministers to the poor. The same nun, it turns out, is pregnant by the missing Lola. Meanwhile, the nurse falls in with Huma (Marisa Paredes), an actress who had been one of Estéban's favorites. Commanding the stage as Blanche du Bois in A Streetcar Named Desire, Huma is saddled off stage with a girlfriend, Nina (Candela Peña), who's addicted to heroin.

Got that?

Yet despite its whacked-out storyline, All About My Mother is a love letter to women, actresses, and survivors of all shapes, sizes, and sexualities. In his last few films, Almodóvar has been more interested in melodrama than in camp, in channeling the spirit of Douglas Sirk, not John Waters. Fans of the director's earlier, raunchier films will find his latest effort lacking. I too confess to missing the renegade perversity of Law of Desire or Matador. But All About My Mother is the most fully realized film in what might be called the director's mature period.

Almodóvar's films have always been boisterous and colorful, showily art-directed and ripely scored. But over time, the director has become one of the cinema's most fluid storytellers as well. Mother's opening is a masterpiece of complexity and concision, layering several styles of "performance" into a breathtaking whole. Manuela and a medical team perform on video, practicing the right way to ask a parent to donate a dead child's organs to a person in need. Later, the nurse and her own doomed son gather in front of the TV for a regular viewing of All About Eve, the son's favorite film and an inspiration to his budding writing career. For Estéban's birthday, Manuela gives him a copy of Music for Chameleons. Then mother and son go off to see Streetcar at the theater. Racing to get the lead actress's autograph, Estéban is killed.

Tennessee Williams and Truman Capote, Bette Davis and medical soap operas -- all are deftly alluded to in what amounts to the film's prologue. The camera tilts crazily as Estéban falls to the ground. His mother explodes in grief. Returning to heal in Barcelona, she frantically searches for her son's lost father in an abandoned field where clients in cars circle prostitutes plying their trade. This stunning image -- the film's most unforgettable -- leads to more familiar Almodóvar territory, as Manuela meets the two women who will help: La Agrado (Antonia San Juan), the transvestite who had been her friend nearly 20 years before, and Sister Rosa (Penelope Cruz), an angelic nun whose own mother won't offer comfort in a desperate time.

"Women will do anything to avoid being alone," Manuela reminds them. Most notably they'll fall for the wrong man. In the Tennessee Williams play, that's Stanley Kowalski, of course. But in Almodóvar's redemptive rewrite, "the kindness of strangers" can truly heal, especially when those strangers are a family of women. Although the film takes its title from the bitchy backstage classic, here women actually pull for one another. When Manuela, who had been an actress in her youth, becomes Huma's personal assistant, the stage is set for a Margo Channing/Eve Harrington catfight. Manuela even goes on as Stella for one performance in Streetcar when Huma's lover is too drugged out to play the part. Yet the tantalizing prospect never materializes. A younger Almodóvar probably wouldn't have resisted, but in his 13th film, the director wants to make nice, on his own peculiar terms, instead.

Affonso Beato's camerawork and José Salcedo's editing meet the demands of the director's baroque storytelling style. So do the performances, which are delivered by a mix of familiar faces and new blood. Cecilia Roth, who hadn't been in an Almodóvar film since 1984, is regally moving as Manuela, a mother who suffers with dignity and grace. Not so dignified is the Spanish cabaret performer Antonia San Juan, who raises the roof as La Agrado. Seizing the stage when the Streetcar stars fall ill, she unleashes a fierce monologue about the price of the plastic surgery that keeps her beautiful enough to work the streets. "It costs me a lot to be authentic," she announces. "A woman is more authentic the more she looks like what she has dreamed for herself."

With her foul mouth, pocked skin, and cheesy outfits, San Juan is a blast from the Almodóvarian past, and she's the spiciest thing in All About My Mother. The director may be heading in loftier directions, but Bette Davis would be proud.

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