Woman Off the Verge
To put it another way: Everyone who turns up in Barcelona is more colorful than the central character. Agrado you already know about. Then there's Sister Rosa (Penélope Cruz), a startlingly beautiful young nun whose determination to be charitable at all costs is itself a kind of mad, self-destructive art; and Huma (Marisa Paredes), the actress who stars in Streetcar, who comes across like Bette Davis come to life--that is, Bette Davis as she existed in the movies. As for Lola, whom you don't yet know about, much could be said, none of it complimentary. Yet she, too, enjoys a certain prestige, by virtue (her only virtue) of being doomed. How is Manuela to compete for your attention against such characters?
She competes by being firm, competent, morally centered but not moralizing. In Roth's performance, she's the deep, throaty one, amid a cast of high-pitched voices. With her dirty-blond hair worn loose and parted in the middle, her features blunt-nosed and pretty-plain, Roth is not the person to whom your eye is immediately drawn, even when she's in one of her blood-red outfits; but when Almodóvar directs your eye toward her, you're rewarded with the sight of two decades of Manuela's experience moving across her face. People often speak of an actor's inhabiting a character. In this case, it's the character who seems to have taken up residence, making herself at home in the hollows under Roth's eyes.
Is it surprising to find Almodóvar, long the bad boy of Spanish film, putting Manuela's decency and persistence at the heart of All About My Mother? Not for moviegoers who have followed his recent career. In The Flower of My Secret (1995), a work with close ties to this one--its opening sequence is replayed, with variations, in the present film--Almodóvar took a detour into the Spanish countryside, to visit with older women living a traditional village life. He didn't glorify their rusticity, and he certainly didn't pretend to prefer it to urban glamour. But he paid his respect to some of the qualities that he now infuses into Manuela, a fully modern woman living in the city.
This respect, like the horror of the son's sudden death, is felt rather than willed in All About My Mother. You can, if you like, speculate on the personal sources of the feeling, and on the curious fact that it attaches only to a woman. (Adult men can't do their part in sustaining life in All About My Mother for the simple reason that they've disappeared. Either they've transformed themselves into women or else they've faded away, like Sister Rosa's father, into Alzheimer's disease.) But whatever you make of it, the confessional tone is unmistakable--both at the end of the film, which bears a dedication to Almodóvar's mother, and at the beginning, when Manuela's son writes the title directly onto the screen.
With that gesture--the famous camera-pen of the French auteurists, made literal--Almodóvar gives you a personal cinema that has freed itself from whatever was mere personality. Too stylish to be flashy, too profoundly demimondaine to need to outrage anyone, All About My Mother confirms Almodóvar's remarkable self-transformation. He has done what artists are supposed to do with age, yet seldom achieve--he's matured. The preoccupations of his earlier films, the vigor, joy in filmmaking, are all still there; but the emotions have deepened into that low, mortal register of Cecilia Roth's voice. The melodrama of All About My Mother is pure authenticity, bottled at a price beyond calculation.
All About My Mother had its US premiere as the opening-night selection of the New York Film Festival, prior to a November release. Moviegoers in the New York area who are hungry in the meantime for more Almodóvar might want to drop by the American Museum of the Moving Image in Astoria, Queens, which is showing a twelve-film retrospective, October 2-17. For information: (718) 784-0077.