Motherhood is a recurring subject in the films of Pedro Almodóvar. The mothers in his movies are fierce, passionate, and resourceful—often in varying combinations, and to varying extremes. In Almodóvar’s darkly satirical fourth feature, What Have I Done to Deserve This? (1984), Carmen Maura stars as a woman who, struggling to pay for her son’s dental treatments, winds up selling him to the dentist. In a Sophia Loren–inspired maternal role in the melodrama Volver (2006), Penélope Cruz unblinkingly protects her daughter, who has murdered an abuser. Almodóvar also shows the sacrosanct, often erotic attachment between mothers and children in all its drawn-out, lifelong tragedy: Victoria Abril’s character in High Heels (1991) sustains an unrequited passion for her famous mother, even going so far as to sleep with her mother’s male impersonator. One of the protagonists of Talk to Her (2002) studies nursing so that he can take physical care of his mother. Julieta (2016) is a love story in which a mother waits for her estranged daughter, who left without a trace.Pain and Glory (2019) also makes a mother and child its central couple. Jacinta (Cruz) forms with her precocious Salvador a bond of abrasive yet tender complicity. She lays out a quilt for him to sleep rough beside her at a railway station. She becomes aware of his first erotic inklings as he lies sunstruck and flushed, his face peach-soft, after watching a man wash naked. But Pain and Glory also pushes forward to Salvador’s middle age, in which he is played by Almodóvar regular Antonio Banderas, the mother now by Julieta Serrano. Jacinta returns as a conflictual figure, regretting that Salvador didn’t ask her to live with and look after him in his adulthood. He feels intense sadness that, instead of being with him in her own home, she dies in a clinic in Madrid.
“The film is an outpouring of feeling, shot through with adrenaline, magical thinking, and deep, consuming love.”
Wind back twenty years and All About My Mother is far more spellbound in its drama. No film by Almodóvar shows the figure of the mother as lovingly as this one. It is his masterpiece of maternal desire and loss, a film of extraordinary sweetness. It was made in the last months of the life of Francisca Caballero, the director’s own mother, who appears in cameos in several of his films, the most memorable being her role as Doña Paquita, a spirited TV host, in Kika (1993). All About My Mother was released in Spain in April 1999, and the following month became Almodóvar’s first movie to compete at the Cannes Film Festival, where he won the best director prize (the first of many international awards for the movie, including a foreign-language-film Oscar). Almodóvar’s mother died in September of the same year. The film’s elaborate dedication, which occupies its closing frame, ends: “to all who wish to be mothers. To my mother.” The film is an outpouring of feeling, shot through with adrenaline, magical thinking, and deep, consuming love.
The main character of All About My Mother, Manuela, is a nurse at a hospital transplant center. Played by Argentinean actor Cecilia Roth, whose first leading role for Almodóvar was in 1982’s Labyrinth of Passion, she is suave and golden. The first minutes of the film show Manuela and Esteban (Eloy Azorín), her teenage son, living together in Madrid. Tenderly, she prepares food that they eat while watching All About Eve on TV. He asks her to read to him from Truman Capote’s Music for Chameleons, as she used to read to him when he was a child. She waits for him outside the theater where they are going to see A Streetcar Named Desire as if she is waiting for a lover. While Manuela waits, Esteban glimpses her from the café opposite and so is witness to the spectacle of his mother in scarlet, standing in front of a vast poster emblazoned with the face of actor Huma Rojo (Marisa Paredes), blonde with deep-red lipstick. His real mother stands in front of this image of a maternal, erotic visage.
There is sexual tension in the tenderness between Manuela and Esteban. He asks her if she would sell her body for him. He remains her greatest love throughout the film. Yet this couple is spared the mutual separation and attrition of feelings charted in Pain and Glory, and indeed any consummation. On this night, Esteban dies, savagely hit by a turning car as he runs in the rain to seek Huma’s autograph. The pouring rain, Manuela’s pained cries, are all part of a liquid, lachrymose current in the film, from its watery titles, to the rippling images of Barcelona’s La Sagrada Família basilica reflected in the glass of a taxi window, to the stretch of the Mediterranean filling the frame in a later scene at that city’s Hospital del Mar. All About My Mother is drenched in feeling. After the accident, the film becomes absorbed with Manuela’s different attempts to keep alive her love for Esteban, to live in its thrall. It is in this way that it conjures magical thinking.
“Almodóvar comes closer than any other director I know to holding on-screen the complexities of psychic life, of projection, of mental rehearsal, of desire.”
In line with the self-reflexivity and intricate layering of so many of Almodóvar’s films—most complex, perhaps, in Bad Education (2004), with its darting moves between past and present and its presentation of a film within the film—All About My Mother is also about writing. In one of the opening scenes, inspired by the title All About Eve, the novice author Esteban writes his own title, Todo sobre mi madre, in his notebook. There is a close-up on his hand writing and then a cut to the pencil lead writing directly on the camera’s viewfinder, seeming to magically inscribe this title on the film itself. The next shot takes us back to Esteban and Manuela sitting on the couch, in front of the TV, with the on-screen title appearing between them. Such narrative framing suggests that it is possible that the story of Manuela’s life we watch is her son’s fantasy, his writing. If this is the case, he can be seen to erase himself, and so the threat of incest, only to imagine his beloved mother more closely devoting herself to his memory.
Almodóvar comes closer than any other director I know to holding on-screen the complexities of psychic life, of projection, of mental rehearsal, of desire. Uncertainties about the status—real, remembered, or imagined—of the images we see and the narrative we follow are all part of this. All About My Mother is particularly unnerving in its strategic repetition of scenes. Before the accident, for example, there is a moment where Manuela thinks her son is going to be run over as he crosses the road. There is a still more elaborate rehearsal in relation to the transplant scene that follows the accident. In her capacity at the hospital, Manuela manages the critical time during which a donation of organs is carried out. She is seen going about this work and also acting the part of a relative of a potential organ donor in a training session with two transplant surgeons. Here Almodóvar also plays with echoes from film to film. A similar session is shown at the start of The Flower of My Secret (1995), where it is unclear at first that it is a performance, filmed within the film, rather than simply part of the movie’s diegetic reality, until the camera is revealed. In the training session that occurs several minutes into All About My Mother, there is less uncertainty about what is real and what is staged—the camera documenting the back-and-forth is visible from the start. But Almodóvar adds another twist: this same scenario is played out for Manuela in real life as she herself waits outside the ICU after her son’s accident and is addressed by the doctors from the training session. She has been through these motions already but lives them for the first time. The repetition is fearful, paranoid—underscored by the sense of disbelief on Roth’s face. The boundary between what is real and acted is scarily blurred.
Whether it represents her son’s fantasy or her own story, the film attends very closely to Manuela’s emotions, her decision to follow her son’s heart to its new recipient, and then her departure from Madrid for Barcelona, where her son was conceived. The high-speed train ride, a motif in the film, offers a long tunnel like a cocoon, a space of numbness—Almodóvar shows grief as an emptying, a new departure. The first images of Barcelona are ecstatic aerial shots of the evening city, irradiated by the swirling music of the song “Tajabone,” by the Senegalese musician Ismaël Lô. This was Almodóvar’s first film set and shot here. The Barcelona scenes, which make up most of the movie’s remainder, have an unreal loveliness, a giddiness that recalls some of Almodóvar’s more glamorous, insane earlier work—Carmen Maura, another of his favorite actors, walking the night streets of Madrid (Almodóvar’s home city and a frequent backdrop for his films) in Law of Desire (1987), or contemplating suicide in a vibrantly colored apartment in Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown (1988). The move to Barcelona in All About My Mother signals a change in time and style, allowing a shift in feeling, a revival of Manuela’s shimmering memories of La Barceloneta and her love for Lola, Esteban’s transfeminine father. In Barcelona, other women become part of Manuela’s story, and the film opens to other memories.
Almost fulfilling what her son had imagined, Manuela is mistaken for a prostitute when she and a friend of hers from the past, Agrado (Antonia San Juan), a transgender sex worker, go to look for work with the help of the nun Rosa (Penélope Cruz). Before long, Manuela seeks out Huma Rojo—again buying tickets for A Streetcar Named Desire, which has come to Barcelona from Madrid, and sitting with a seat for her son empty beside her—and begins acting as an assistant to the glamorous performer, buttoning her sleeves, pouring tea just before the intermission of her play. And Manuela takes into her house Sister Rosa, who recently had sex with Lola (Toni Cantó) while helping her through rehab, and who is pregnant with Lola’s baby. When Rosa learns that, like Lola, she is HIV-positive, Manuela takes her in her arms, and Rosa weeps convulsively, like a child.
Manuela creates in Barcelona a makeshift family, a passionate group of female-identified friends. Agrado affords a link to her past, a time before Esteban, and San Juan’s playful performance brings humor into the film. With Huma, whom we see as Blanche DuBois and as a bereaved mother in a play by Federico García Lorca, Manuela revisits her own dreams of being an actor. (The part of Huma is grippingly played by Paredes, who is also stunning as the abandoned novelist Leo in The Flower of My Secret; here again her character is blissfully elegant in designer clothes, long-legged, a brilliant actor but needy, generous, tortured in love.) Manuela plays a vital supportive role to the women around her, taking Agrado to the night pharmacy after she has been beaten up, locating Huma’s girlfriend and costar Nina (Candela Peña) on the streets buying drugs. She revisits her past self, her years of being young, in her friendships, but she also evinces a maternal toughness that is part of the film’s optic on motherhood. She displays this quality most clearly with Rosa, caring first for her and then finally, though at first reluctantly, for her son, whom Rosa names Esteban before dying in childbirth.
But until those final
stretches of the film, the candid, pristine Rosa follows Manuela around like a
little sister. Rosa is estranged from her own mother, another blonde figure,
and her father is also missing, lost in dementia. Played by the veteran actor
Fernando Fernán Gómez, who starred in films of the seventies by Víctor Erice
and Carlos Saura, the amnesiac father is a reminder of the Spain of Franco and
the traumatic hole that period left in so many families’ histories. On her way
to the hospital to give birth, Rosa asks to stop in the Plaça del Duc de
Medinaceli, near which she used to live. Here Cruz, fragile and tearful,
physically resembles Geraldine Chaplin in her parts for Saura. In this square
of childhood memories, Rosa glimpses the family dog, Sapic, and clasps him,
soft, full of hair, in her arms. The dog knows her, making her father’s words,
as he approaches and addresses her as a stranger, all the more painful. Cruz’s
face carries the emotion of the scene perfectly.
Almodóvar in his films is in love with actresses, with all who are or want to be women, and to be mothers. All About My Mother nestles Manuela’s story in among those of others in her transitory community in Barcelona. Maternity is rescued—from the preserves of Catholicism and Franco’s regime, with its vision of motherhood as a means of keeping women in the home and of rebuilding Spain, and from the iconography of the fake–Marc Chagall Nativities created by Rosa’s mother—and realized as erotic, savage, selfless, unnatural, perverse, and beautiful. It is not blood kinship that matters but care, and feeling. The film blurs divisions between birth and adoptive parenthood, cis and trans. The desire to be a mother is aligned with other passions, many of them queer and trans: Huma’s helpless attachment to Nina; Agrado’s exultant, silicone realization of her female body; Rosa’s sexual desire for Lola notwithstanding her religious calling; and the lure of the stage, acting, and performance, variously, for all the characters. The film’s colors are scarlet and rose, its dominant visual patterns the arabesques and flowers of Antoni Gaudí’s architecture. It is a rapturous film, despite spilling the blood of Manuela’s child, and tracing the grief that follows.Almodóvar often captures the delirium, the wishfulness, of mental process and memory. Watched together, in different combinations, his films emerge as a glimmering series of rehearsals, revisions of interpretation, offering ways of feeling new depths of, new variations on, love, grief, and other human passions. His take on maternity, in particular, has over the years proved to be ever more capacious: intense and mad, nonjudgmental, extreme, full of agony and adoration, from the irreverence of What Have I Done to Deserve This? through the more fraught bonds of Pain and Glory. But it is in All About My Mother—a hushed tribute to a mother not yet lost—that mother love is seen at its most intense, its most treasured. The film has the candor and loveliness of Roth’s performance, the real feeling of the women around her. It is full-blown, tender, feminine, magical, sublime—the most exquisitely moving film that Almodóvar has made.