All About My Mother is about many mothers, starting with the one whom it is dedicated to: Pedro Almodovar’s own.
From there the movie expands to firstly include Manuela (Cecilia Roth), a nurse who lives with her 18-year-old son Esteban (Eloy Azorin), an aspiring writer. Esteban pesters Manuela for information about his father, whom he has never met. Manuela refuses to answer, partly because that father is now essentially his other mother, living as Lola, a transgender woman. Manuela’s decision to quit her job and reconnect with Lola (Toni Canto) brings her into contact with a variety of other actual mothers and mother figures, including a transgender prostitute (Antonia San Juan), a troubled stage actress (Marisa Paredes) and a pregnant nun (a young Penelope Cruz).
As promiscuous as ever, Almodovar isn’t content to merely ruminate on the theme of motherhood. And so All About My Mother is also — and perhaps mostly — about the ability of melodrama to speak to, and rise from, our mundane lives. Melodrama not only defines All About My Mother; it also feeds it. At the movie’s start, Manuela and Esteban watch All About Eve together on television. Later, they attend a local production of A Streetcar Named Desire starring Huma Rojo, the aforementioned actress. (The movie’s definitive shot is one of Manuela standing before a giant advertisement featuring Huma’s face.) Soon after seeing the play, Manuela’s life is dramatically turned upside down, sending her on a healing journey in which she, ironically, becomes the healer.
Melodrama not only defines the film; it also feeds it.
One of the delightful pleasures of All About My Mother is the way these chaotic characters fall so easily into each other’s upended lives, so that those in need of care become indistinguishable from the caregivers. Rosa, the nun, tries to find Manuela a job, only to have Manuela become her unofficial doula. Huma grants Manuela a favor, only to be greatly comforted by her presence. Almodovar’s trademark empathy is in full flower here, as All About My Mother suggests that the best way to care for someone is simply to be there.
Visually, the film is delicious, thanks to the way Almodovar heightens the emotional element of each scene. Even an overhead shot of cars circling the prostitutes in a forsaken field has the elegance of a ballet. He also favors interiors with wild wallpaper, bright colors and busy floor patterns; save for the hospital visits, there’s hardly a boring room in the movie.
All of this helps blur the line between the aesthetics of melodrama and the realities of everyday life. All About My Mother, like so many Almodovar films, bridges the gap between great actresses of the past who expressed big feelings; his own characters, who admire and emulate them; and those of us sitting in the audience. It’s not so much that we see our own lives as little movies, but that Almodovar’s movies make small lives — all lives — matter.