Charles Eager enjoys a stimulating film which he found was only slightly marred by cinema whisperers and a questionable political angle on the part of the organisers.
All About My Mother (or Todo sobre mi madre, 1999) is a curious tale of a single mother and her son, who at eighteen dreams of being a writer. Or so is the start of the tale. The two are unfailingly close, their relationship flawlessly tender—perhaps fatally so. The son, Estéban, is obsessed with the literary and theatrical arts to the extreme point at which he gets killed whilst chasing after a car in which his favourite actress is leaving the theatre. There is more than a slight suggestion in the film’s text that it is the mother’s, Manuela’s, lifelong indulgence of her son which indirectly allows for his rather meaningless and paltry death and waste of his young life. Although the film is sympathetic throughout to Manuela, especially since she is acutely—although quite subtly—conscious of her failings, it is quite harsh in its criticisms, though they remain implicit, of those who fail their duties to the family.
After a curious tangent in which Manuela pursues her son’s donated heart (the donation of which she authorised: a plotline borrowed and developed from Almodóvar’s 1995 film The Flower of my Secret (Le flor de mi secreto)) to its new possessor, and sees he and his family on the way out of the hospital joking about the strength he will enjoy now he has the heart of an eighteen-year-old – a startlingly brutal moment – she goes to Barcelona (juicy shots of Gaudi’sbasílica de la sagrada familia included) to seek the absent father who, eighteen years ago, had run off and became (or was already?) a transvestite by the name of Lola, birth name, unsurprisingly, also Estéban.
However, we do not meet this curious figure—who at once drives all the film’s plotlines and at the same time remains conspicuously absent—until the final twenty minutes or so of the film. Instead the story follows Manuela’s reconciliation with a transvestite friend in Barcelona named Agrado, because, she says, she “likes to make life agreeable to people”, who is working as a prostitute, which it turns out Lola-Estéban was also involved in before running off.
The two then meet—after many a warm witticism from Agrado—a Sister Rosa (played by Penelope Cruz), who works at a shelter for battered prostitutes and whom we later learn is three months pregnant and, later still, that she is HIV positive by—you guessed it—the one and only Lola-Estéban. Manuela spends much of the film bonding with these two, but is most occupied with her rejoining the theatre, the context in which she had met Lola-Estéban eighteen years ago, first as assistant to the actress for whom her son had thrown away his life, and later going on to play the role of Stella in A Streetcar Named Desire, the very role she had played opposite Lola-Estéban eighteen years ago. You see how all lives and plotlines perfectly congrue and intersect as in a Victorian novel. For all its so-called shocking profanity and supposed great originality—”ahead of its time”, the announcer before the film assured us—the story is really an old, old tale of a family separated—a theme which has held our attention from The Odyssey, through Shakespeare, and to today in this case, and which will probably always command our sympathy and attention. Eventually, Rosa dies, which brings Lola-Estéban to the funeral, where Manuela informs him of the son he did not know he had, by which Lola-Estéban is deeply moved. Manuela takes Rosa’s baby—and of course, names him Estéban—who negativises the hereditary illness “in record time”. You can see what a tale this story is!
The formulaic, card-read announcement prior to the film assured us that we were about to see Almodóvar’s “greatest film” and that (as mentioned above) it was “ahead of its time” in its sympathetic portrayal of LGBTQ+ persons. Sympathetic, yes: but is 1999 really ahead of its time for such a tale? The mother has to leave the centre of society and enter its drug- and prostitution-filled fringes in order to access these new experiences and, while undoubtedly a humanity shines through the crime, or rather a tenderness disregards sin, still the dangers and sad waste inherent in such crimes are fully acknowledged. So by the final reconciliation, the general ode to humanity seems somewhat drowned out by Lola-Estéban’s reading-out of her-his son’s notebooks, in which he realises is an unqualified yearning to know who his father is, and a gentle chiding of his mother for not revealing the information, which he would know regardless of any sins or failings on the father’s part. In short, the human ode gives way to a song celebratory of the delicate but sacred security of the stable nuclear family.
A stimulating film, no doubt, and a much appreciated showing, though the political angle which was stressed by the organisers was not terribly well worked out, since it ignored the complexity of the film itself to harness the political message they wanted.
I might also make a more general comment on the courtesy in Leeds’ cinemas and its cinema-goers, which seems to have taken a nosedive in the past year or so. At Hyde Park Picture House last Friday to see P. T. Anderson’s very fine Phantom Thread, I had to make no fewer than four “shushes”, an assertion I have not been in the habit of making, and had to resist throwing a rolled up ball of paper at a young couple across from me. To my surprise, at this showing, it was a sixty-something couple who kept up their colloquy for well up to half an hour into the film, although they left off as the interest in the plot increased. In these days when film screenings suffer under the convenience of limitless home video, I might suggest cinemas take a measure or two to remind the public that they could literally go almost anywhere else in the world to have their conversations, but that the cinema is for cinema.
Photograph supplied by Opera North.
Charles covers culture vulture and music, specialising in classical. He is co-author of Synkronos, published in September 2017.