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Movie Review

Finding Shelter From Life's Storms

In Almodovar's mature 'All About My Mother,' characters persevere by looking after one another.

November 24, 1999|KENNETH TURAN | TIMES FILM CRITIC

Spain's Pedro Almodovar understands that true drama can be found in the heart of outrageous melodrama, and he underlines the point with his most accessible film to date, "All About My Mother."

The most universally popular entry among both audiences and critics at Cannes, where Almodovar won the best director prize, "All About My Mother" is a surprisingly satisfying combination of bawdy sexual humor, genuine emotion and a plot with mechanics so excessive that Almodovar himself calls it "a screwball drama."

One of Spain's most celebrated writer-directors since the mid-1980s, Almodovar and his films (the Oscar-nominated "Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown" is his best known over here) have always been celebrated for their wacky shenanigans, and this is no exception. Who else but he could combine in one picture a pregnant nun, a heroin-addicted lesbian actress and a transvestite father with AIDS? All this in a film typically dedicated, in part, "To all women who act, to men who act, to men who act and become women, to all the people who want to be mothers, to my mother."

While the earlier Almodovar enjoyed creating excessive creatures for satiric purposes, "All About My Mother" (the title is a homage to "All About Eve") demonstrates a new world view. The director, paralleling the great 1940s Hollywood melodramas he so admires, has made his characters more fully human, in effect using melodrama as a vehicle for creating emotion that is deeper than we may be expecting.

Helping him is an ensemble of Spanish-speaking actresses--Cecilia Roth, Marisa Paredes, Penelope Cruz, Antonia San Juan and Candela Pena--whose cumulative impact is the film's greatest strength. Clearly enjoying both the characters they're playing as well as the experience of sharing the screen with one another, these women make the melodrama real, simply by playing it that way.

Since matters of life and death are a key part of any melodrama, it's fitting that "All About My Mother" starts in a Madrid hospital where Manuela (Roth) works as the coordinator of organ transplants. An actress in her youth, Manuela now performs only in videos used to help potential donors with their decision.

The heart of Manuela's life is her teenage son Esteban (Eloy Azorin), a precocious writer who is desperate to know more about the one person Manuela refuses to talk about: his father. As a 17th birthday present, she takes the young man to a performance of "A Streetcar Named Desire" starring the grand diva Huma Rojo (Paredes) as Blanche and a surly young actress named Nina (Pena) as Stella.

Desperate to get Huma's autograph, Esteban runs blindly into the street on a rainy night and (did anyone mention melodrama?) dies almost before viewers will have settled into their seats. Ravaged by grief, Manuela decides she has to go to Barcelona, the city she left nearly 18 years ago when she was pregnant and alone. Once running from Esteban's father, she's now going in search of him.

In Spain's second city, gradually and almost without knowing it, Manuela in effect constructs a second family for herself, an all-female cocoon of caring outsiders who amuse and support one another.

She first runs into an old friend named Agrado (San Juan), a tart-tongued transvestite who says, "All I have that is real are my feelings and silicone." Though Agrado she meets Sister Rosa (Cruz), a true innocent who always tells the truth. And, wouldn't you know it, that fatal production of "Streetcar" rolls into town, and Huma and Nina become part of Manuela's life as well.

Truly, coincidence is this film's lifeblood, but Almodovar, understanding this, has said he compensated by deciding during the rehearsal period that "the performances should be as sober as possible." As a result, "All About My Mother's" continual stream of hugs, tears and crises, its mix of the serious and the sendup played out against the director's love for the brightest possible colors, ends up the director's most completely realized film. If, as Almodovar comments archly in the press notes, "the word 'maturity' doesn't have a good reputation," this film should help in the restoration process.

* MPAA rating: R, for sexuality including strong sexual dialogue, language and some drug content. Times guidelines: outrageous words and situations leavened with humor.

'All About My Mother'

Cecilia Roth: Manuela

Marisa Paredes: Huma Rojo

Candela Pen~a: Nina

Antonia San Juan: Agrado

Penelope Cruz: Sister Rosa

Augustin Almodovar & Claude Berri present an El Deseo S.A./Renn Productions/France 2 Cinema co-production, released by Sony Pictures Classics. Director Pedro Almodovar. Executive producer Augustin Almodovar. Screenplay Pedro Almodovar. Cinematographer Affonso Beato. Editor Jose Salcedo. Costumes Jose Maria De Cossio, Sabine Daigeler. Music Alberto Iglesias. Director of production Esther Garcia. Art director Antxon Gomez. Set decorator Federico Garcia Cambero. Running time: 1 hour, 41 minutes.

At selected theaters.

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