Mother Figure

Dreamy homage to the angels in his life will add more fuel to the fire for those enamored with director Pedro Almodovar's work

January 14, 2000|By Ann Hornaday | Ann Hornaday,Sun Film Critic

There are people who are addicted to Pedro Almodovar, and well they should be. The Spanish director's lively visual style, his love for screwball comedy and his unabashed humanism make his movies easy to like, even as they transport filmgoers into worlds they otherwise wouldn't dream existed.

For Almodovar addicts, then, "All About My Mother" will prove a welcome fix, a madcap, sentimental, slightly kinky oasis in a comparatively arid cinematic landscape.

For those who find Almodovar too contrived and melodramatic for their tastes, this offering will probably only reinforce their recalcitrance.

Cecila Roth (who along with most of the cast members is part of Almodovar's beloved and long-standing repertory troupe) plays Manuela, a 36-year-old medical professional living in Madrid with her son Esteban. On Esteban's 17th birthday, the two attend a performance of "A Streetcar Named Desire," a play that sends Esteban into a rapturous pursuit of the play's lead actress Huma Rojo (Marisa Paredes), and Manuela into a reverie about Esteban's father, with whom she once acted in an amateur ensemble.

The play and their reactions to it will send them on a cataclysmic course, ending with Manuela traveling to Barcelona to tie up the ends that she loosened so long ago.

"All About My Mother" takes so many unexpected dips and turns that it would be unfair to synopsize any further.

Suffice it to say that Almodovar's references to the Bette Davis classic "All About Eve" -- which pepper the production with insouciant subtlety -- culminate hilariously when Manuela becomes Eve Harrington to Huma's Margo Channing.

In another Eve-esque turn, a frowzy transvestite named Agrado (Antonia San Juan), the film's most lovable character, delivers the movie's greatest moment in an impromptu version of her life story before a packed theater.

Almodovar, best known for such pictures as "Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown" and "The Flower of My Secret," has never shied away from his characters' weaknesses -- their addictions, frailties, failures and scars are thrown into 35-millimeter relief for all the world to see.

But in his loving gaze, even the most fallen among them are angels.

"All About My Mother" is no different, as Manuela befriends a group of beautiful misfits who be- come her surrogate sisterhood.

Even the men are sisters in a film that pays zany, often too-contrived tribute to the female knack for dissembling, deceiving and surviving, and Almodovar zooms in passionately on all their glorious faces, whether they're careworn, dewy or shaded with a slight five o'clock shadow.

Combining the lurid flair of a Douglas Sirk with the elastic moral universe of John Waters, Almodovar has created an ecstatic homage to the women who have inspired him all his life.

"All About My Mother"

Starring Cecila Roth, Marisa Paredes, Penelope Cruz

Directed by Pedro Almodovar

Rated R (sexuality including strong sexual dialogue, language and some drug content) Running time 101 minutes

Released by Sony Pictures Classics

Sun score ***

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