All About My Mother (1999)


“All About My Mother” was Pedro Almodóvar’s biggest international hit, winning an Oscar for best foreign-language film and topping the moderate success he’d had with “Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown” (1988) and “Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!” (1990). It was also the first Almodóvar movie that I’d seen, and I loved it, apparently. But as I was watching his latest, “The Skin I Live In,” I realized that for as acclaimed as he is, and for as much as I’ve praised his films from the last decade, very little about them has stuck with me. If I were making a list of my favorite current directors — even non-American ones — I don’t think it would occur to me to include Almodóvar.

And that got me wondering about “All About My Mother.” Did I really love it as much as I thought I did twelve years ago? There was one way to find out. To the Re-Viewmobile!

What I said then:

“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…. Cecilia Roth is incredibly strong as Manuela, easily carrying the movie on her shoulders. Manuela’s sadness … 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.” Grade: A [the complete review]

First of all, let me point out that this is a terrible review. The parts I just quoted come from the first and last paragraphs, and they’re the only parts that actually express an opinion on the film’s merits. Everything in between is just me citing details from the movie and expounding on how they reflect Almodóvar’s themes, as if my main goal was to show you how smart I was and how well I “got” the movie.

Don’t get me wrong, I am smart, and I did get the movie. But I should have been more subtle about conveying that information. This reads less like a review and more like an essay for a film class. Maybe my excitement over finding meaning in the film made me praise it more effusively than it deserved? That seemed like a possibility.

The timing contributed to my doubts. “All About My Mother” had started making its way around the U.S. art-house circuit in November 1999, but it wasn’t until late February 2000 that I saw it. By that time, it had been praised by numerous critics, had appeared on some best-of-1999 lists, and had, as of Feb. 15, been nominated for the Oscar. I can’t remember exactly what my thoughts were back then, when I was still a new and impressionable critic, but it’s possible I was subconsciously influenced by the acclaim circling the film.

The re-viewing:

By the way, there’s literally nothing worse in the entire world than when you go to watch a Netflix DVD and discover the disc is cracked and won’t play, and so you have to pay $2.99 to watch the movie over Amazon Instant Video instead. Literally. In the entire world.

For a movie that’s supposedly set in the real world, this one has some unbelievable “only in the movies” plot devices. Manuela stepping in for Nina at the last minute to play Stella in “A Streetcar Named Desire” — and doing so flawlessly, without rehearsal — is a fantasy. So is Agrado’s ability to hold an audience with an improvised one-woman show when they came to the theater to see “Streetcar.” (For that matter, there’s no way they’d wait until the audience was seated to announce that the performance was canceled.) The rest of the story isn’t torn from everyday life, obviously, but at least it’s plausible.

I enjoyed noticing the little details Almodóvar throws in that parallel the femme-centric “All About Eve” and “A Streetcar Named Desire.” Whether the parallels are meaningful or just playful, they contribute texture — texture that would be missed entirely by a viewer who was unfamiliar with those other works. “All About My Mother” feels like it has something on its mind, which is more than you can say for a lot of films.

But what are we supposed to do with the plot threads that don’t go anywhere? The nun’s mother makes a reference to her career as an art forger; why? Manuela tracks down the man who received her dead son’s heart; also why? These elements sound important, yet nothing is done with them.

Cecilia Roth’s performance still stands out on second viewing. So does Marisa Paredes’ work as Huma Rojo, the force-of-nature theater actress. I would not complain if the same two characters appeared in another film, perhaps in a “Thelma and Louise” scenario, though I’d probably prefer a different ending. (Spoiler: Thelma and Louise die.)

Do I still love this movie?

Not quite, but I do like it a lot. There’s no lack of entertainment value or creativity; the story is engaging, the characters are colorful. If I didn’t know that it had won the Oscar for best foreign-language film, and you informed me of this, I think I would be surprised. I would say, “What? Really? Huh.” Still no explanation for why I tend to enjoy Almodóvar’s films and subsequently forget all about them, though. Just part of the mystique, I guess. Grade: B