ALL ABOUT MY MOTHER

Directed and written by Pedro Almodovar

With Cecilia Roth, Marisa Paredes, Penélope Cruz and Antonia San Juan

Distributed by Sony Pictures Classics

***


Where can an artist go when he (and it's almost always a "he") tires of being an enfant terrible? I find it hard to imagine the kind of films Fassbinder might have made had he joined a 12-step group, settled down with Juliane Lorenz and started mellowing out: his anger and defeatist gloom about Germany's past, present and future seem inseparable from his films' vitality. On the other hand, American provocateurs like Todd Solondz, Kevin Smith and Neil LaBute might be better filmmakers at 50, assuming that they'll automatically mature emotionally with age. Beginning with THE FLOWER OF MY SECRET, Almodovar has clearly grown frustrated with his own image as the bad boy of self-consciously "politically incorrect" farce. For all its sexual and chemical shenanigans, LIVE FLESH confirmed this desire to escape the confines of "Almodovar", which ALL ABOUT MY MOTHER takes even further. This melodrama may be full of tragedy, but Almodovar expresses so little anger and so much reverence towards his female cast - and films like ALL ABOUT EVE, A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE and John Cassavetes' OPENING NIGHT - that the presiding mood is surprisingly serene.

ALL ABOUT MY MOTHER begins as a story about the relationship between single mother Manuela (Roth), a hospital counselor, and her teenage son, but that story grinds to a halt when he's killed in a car accident after the two take in a Madrid performance of A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE on his birthday. Jolted by the shock, Manuela returns to her hometown of Barcelona in search of his father, now a transvestite dying of AIDS. Along the way, she winds up befriending street queen/prostitute La Agrado (San Juan), pregnant nun Sister Rosa (Cruz), and Huma (Paredes), the star of the STREETCAR performance that Manuela and her son caught on his final night. Manuela finds herself filling in the loss left by her son's death by taking care of these three troubled souls.

ALL ABOUT MY MOTHER celebrates traditional femininity - mothers, actresses and the inevitable hookers with hearts of gold are its heroines - while owing an enormous debt to feminist and queer theory about gender fluidity. One of Almodovar's choices embodies this paradox: La Agrado is a biological man with silicone breast implants (and a functioning cock), who defends the fortune she's spent on plastic surgery by suggesting that she's retained her authenticity by living out her fantasies, rather than discovering and being true to some essential, unchanging vision of self. In her eyes, femininity is a masquerade, but one well worth pursuing: a very Wildean - and European - stance. Similarly, the film tempers its celebration of motherhood by acknowledging that a "family" doesn't necessarily have to be tied together biologically. In fact, Manuela becomes a better mother to Sister Rosa than her "real" one.

At their best (and despite Almodovar's perverse, often cruel sense of humor), his 80s films exuded an odd sort of camp humanism. The camp is almost entirely gone from ALL ABOUT MY MOTHER, but the melodrama remains. Almodovar's willing to indulge narrative excess and contrivance - the kindest way I could describe some of his outrageous plot twists - with a straight face and - more importantly - a sincere heart. Rarely does he pump up the irony as a disclaimer that we're not watching the Lifetime Channel, unlike most "hip" American directors his age or younger. Next to a maddeningly uneven modern Hollywood "women's movie" like ANYWHERE BUT HERE, Almodovar does seem to have a pipeline to the spirits of Vincente Minnelli, Douglas Sirk and George Cukor.

As Quentin Tarantino did with Samuel L. Jackson's character in JACKIE BROWN and David Lynch with the woman who keeps killing deer with her car in THE STRAIGHT STORY, Almodovar uses La Agrado as a connection between his past and present work. (To a lesser extent, the same is true of Sister Rosa, although she looks quite proper compared to the heroin/acid-addled nuns of DARK HABITS.) Although preferable to KIKA's rape jokes, the sobriety of THE FLOWER OF MY SECRET and LIVE FLESH sometimes felt rather blah. La Agrado's presence is designed to liven things up, but she doesn't quite do the...uh, trick. Sassy, streetwise drag queens come a dime a dozen onscreen these days, and her foul-mouthed dialogue about oral sex pales next to the imaginative raunch of old-school Almodovar.

Mike D'Angelo's complaint that "the women of MOTHER are so unfailingly resilient and benevolent and -- there's really no other word but 'fabulous' -- that the pic never achieves a real sense of urgency" sums up both the appeal and limits of Almodovar's vision. Although he idealizes Manuela to the point of blandness, this fantasy of maternal benevolence putting the "function" back in dysfunctional families works as a comforting counterpoint to the evil fathers of 1998 festival favorites like THE CELEBRATION, THE APPLE and HAPPINESS, especially since it's too complex and self-conscious to raise the spectre of Republican-style sexist "family values." I'm sure this comfort factor contributed to the buzz the film received on this year's festival circuit, especially at Cannes. (Even now that I've seen it, this buzz still startles me, since the equally worthy THE FLOWER OF MY SECRET only received a fraction of the same attention. Maybe timing is everything.) Considering the near-universal Cannes raves, I approached it with such high hopes that I was disappointed not to be deeply moved. However, making a solid, unspectacular film is no disgrace, just one more confirmation of Almodovar's determination to find a new voice in a minor key. Maybe next time around he'll have mastered the scale.