All About My Mother (Spanish)

Pedro Almodóvar wrote and directed “All About My Mother” with apparently one thing in mind: to show the us the minds and feelings of women. Note, as we discuss the story, how ineffectual, useless or altogether absent the male characters are.

The first male is Esteban (Eloy Azorín), the 17-year-old boy whose mother, Manuela (Cecilia Roth), is the madre of the title. He’s a strong character, an intelligent boy who wants to be a writer — and then he is hit by a car while seeking the autograph of legendary actress Huma Rojo (Marisa Paredes), who’s playing Blanche in “A Streetcar Named Desire” in a professional Madrid theater.

With her son dead, Manuela goes to Barcelona, whence she came. She never told Esteban who his father was, but his journal indicates he really wanted to know, regardless of how unpleasant the story may have been. Now she’s going back to find the guy herself, mainly because he never knew she even had a child and she figures he ought to know, now that the boy is dead. (Or something.)

That “guy” turns out to be Lola (Toni Cantó), a transvestite with whom Manuela once associated, along with Agrado (Antonia San Juan). Seems all three of them were prostitutes, and Lola and Agrado had special features: They were men who had had varying degrees of work done to become women, but stopped half-way (lady-top/man-bottom) in order to please the customers who like that sort of thing.

Lola has recently left town, though, stopping first to rob Agrado, who is thrilled to see her old colleague Manuela. The two get themselves to a nunnery, where the kind-hearted Sister Rosa (Penelope Cruz) agrees to help them find legitimate work. Manuela winds up taking Rosa into her own apartment when Rosa turns out to be a) pregnant and b) HIV-positive.

Meanwhile, Manuela goes back to the theater where Esteban was killed, wanting to meet Huma Rojo for purposes of closure. She winds up becoming Huma’s personal assistant, and caretaker of Huma’s lesbian lover and co-star Nina (Candela Peña), who is usually so doped up on something, she can’t even stand up straight.

See any men here? The most prominent man is Agrado, and he’s pretty much a woman now. Even traditional male roles in society are played by women: Huma and Nina don’t have a man anywhere, and the deadbeat Lola is the father of Rosa’s baby, too. The only other men are various cold doctors and Rosa’s senile father (Fernando Fernán Gómez) who doesn’t even recognize her.

“All About My Mother” tells us all about women in general, in all their roles: mothers, fathers, caretakers, workers, sex objects, actresses, and everything else. The main point seems to be that for whatever reason, in this man-dominated world, women are often unable to just be themselves. Huma asks Manuela if she can act, and she says, “I can lie very well, and I’m used to improvising.”

Huma (a variation of the Spanish word for “smoke”) is not her real name; she took it as a stage name as a result of her smoking habit, which she started because she emulated Bette Davis. Agrado’s name comes from the Spanish word for “agreeable” — Agrado is always trying to make other people happy. In fact, that’s what all these women are trying to do: make others happy. Whether by prostituting themselves or performing onstage, all of these women are actresses in one way or another, living lives not their own and hoping to find joy vicariously through the joy of others.

Cecilia Roth is incredibly strong as Manuela (a female variation of a man’s name, notice), easily carrying the movie on her shoulders. Manuela’s sadness over the death of her son permeates the film, giving it an aching quality that resonates deeply. There is humor through the tears, though, and “All About My Mother” — through all its vulgarity and surprising intelligence — succeeds in a number of gentle, gratifying ways.

A (1 hr., 45 min.; R, frequent harsh profanity, sexual dialogue, transvestitism, one scene of nudity, mild violence.)