To die for art: No one takes the idea seriously anymore, and yet people do it every day. Just ask Agrado (Antonia San Juan), who makes a curtain speech on the subject in All About My Mother. Standing center stage in a theater in Barcelona, where she has presented herself impromptu, Agrado offers to tell the story of her life as a stand-in for the scheduled performance, which was to have been A Streetcar Named Desire. Of course, she’s always wanted to play Blanche; but for those who choose to stay, she says with a coquettish wriggle, she’ll just talk about herself, since she has “a lot of authenticity.” Her breasts, for example, which she bought in Paris, are authentic and cost a lot. The laser hair removal wasn’t cheap, either, at four to six sessions for the full body. (She used to be a truck driver. You can imagine.) The nose job, as it happened, was a waste of money, because a year after she had it, a john hit her and ruined the whole thing. But that’s the only expense she would have spared herself. Do the arithmetic, Agrado says with a smile no less broad for being lopsided, and you can understand, she’s given everything for her authenticity, so she can be exactly like her dreams.

In All About My Mother, and in our world, too, people put more than money into living such dreams. They risk getting their throats cut. They overdose; they contract HIV. But that’s not exactly what the movie is about. Better to say it’s about the survivors: the ones who are left with nothing but the art that someone else died for.

Written and directed by Pedro Almodóvar, All About My Mother is the story of six months in the life of Manuela (Cecilia Roth)–the six months after the loss of her son, who dies for art. Slender, blond, poetic and just turned 17, he perishes on the streets of Madrid right before Manuela’s eyes, after attending a performance of A Streetcar Named Desire. His fatal mistake: being too avid for the autograph of the star who played Blanche. Chasing after her departing taxi, he is struck down at the cross-street and killed.

This first-reel catastrophe, so clearly foreshadowed and so inescapable, is of course a kind of extraction. Almodóvar boils down all the harms that might befall a young gay man and bottles them as melodrama. And what a brilliant job of bottling it is! However much the disaster is expected, Almodóvar makes it chaotic, kinesthetic, terrifying, heart-rending: a sudden tumble of glass and pavement and out-of-sync sound, which is shot in slow-motion but feels like it’s double-time. This isn’t direction–it’s realization. From this point on, we don’t need to read Manuela’s grief in her face (though it’s there all the same in Roth’s performance, even when she’s smiling). The knowledge that the worst can and does happen has now been compacted and intensified, much as the flavorings on your kitchen shelf are concentrated.

And, like the row of bottles on your kitchen shelf, All About My Mother is drenched in color, all of it too saturated to be natural, yet fully authentic.

The color, though already extraordinary in the early scenes, becomes full-spectrum when Manuela leaves Madrid. With a load of grief too mountainous to be borne in her present circumstances, she returns to Barcelona, where her son was born. There she can search for someone on whom to dump a portion of her mourning. In Barcelona, she also can revisit the world of theatrical artists and street people–characters such as Agrado–among whom she once had lived, in the years before she became a professional woman with a steady job. She can momentarily dip into their existence, as if she, too, had been fated to die for art. She can, with some resistance and initial bitterness, resume her real destiny, which is to succor others and help life to go on; and in her own life, she can dwell amid the multihued art that is everywhere in Barcelona, from the dressing rooms of a theater to the gorgeously tiled apartment of a street hustler.

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.