Women of the Year

Photo by Teresa IsasiEARLY ON IN PEDRO ALMODÓVAR'S NEW FILM, THE FACE of Bette Davis, a mask in cold cream, fills the screen. The movie is All About Eve, and Davis, a diva playing a diva, is throwing a hissy fit in her dressing room, railing against fans in general and her fans in particular -- just moments before being introduced to the fan who will ruin her life. Spraying disdain in her famously supercilious rasp, Davis carries on for all the world like a drag queen in full supper-club tirade. That's no slight: Almodóvar worships drama queens, with or without natural breasts. And though Davis will have a counterpart in his movie -- an overwrought actress with a specialty in Blanche DuBois -- she's but one in a cast of characters that runs the gamut from a bereaved nurse mad with grief over the loss of her son to a mouthy transgendered hooker wearing almost none of her original body parts.

All About My Mother opens on a handsome boy, Esteban (Eloy Azarín), who's very close to his single mother, Manuela (Cecilia Roth), and for a while (given some sly references to Truman Capote and Tennessee Williams) it looks as though we're about to see a thinly disguised gay autobiopic. In a way we are, for although Esteban is dispatched on his 17th birthday and the focus shifts to Manuela, All About My Mother, like all Almodóvar films, constructs femininity through the irreverent, loving gaze of a man who grew up surrounded by adoring women on the verge. Given the pap that is currently most studios' idea of a "women's movie," gay filmmakers like Almodóvar may be providing a last refuge for decent parts for women, and (God knows, gay men live in dramatic times) a last refuge for wholehearted melodrama in our hyperironic age.

Melodrama becomes Almodóvar -- he's a Joseph Mankiewicz for the silicone age. He makes old-fashioned women's weepies, winking broadly as he goes, though more to celebrate than to send up the female capacity for theatrics. As always, straight men are portrayed as endearingly foolish lugs. Just about everyone worth knowing in All About My Mother is female in spirit, which is to say they're all sexy, impossible, powerfully durable souls, quarrelsome and loyal, inventive at navigating the tragedies (death and disease, mainly) with which the movie is studded.

And all of them gifted weepers. When a woman cries in an Almodóvar film, it's a heaving, gasping, imperial happening to be savored. So it is with Manuela, an organ-transplant nurse who knows exactly what's coming when two doctors sit her down to finesse telling her the bad news about her son. Nice try, but an Almodóvar woman doesn't go quietly. Racked by sorrow over Esteban's death -- which occurs just as she's about to tell him about the father he never knew -- Manuela rushes to Barcelona to seek out her ex, who continues to screw women in more ways than one.

From here, the plot, however elaborately structured and layered with significance, is an excuse to throw a bunch of throaty-voiced women together to booze, talk dirty, cry and generally prop each other up. Before long, Manuela finds herself reluctantly playing den mother to this group, brought together by blithely preposterous coincidence, and with enough oversize emotion among them to fill a season of grand opera. Her old friend La Agrado, played by the cabaret artist Antonia San Juan, is a beat-up transgendered prostitute, a ham with heart who stage-manages every moment of her life. Manuela goes to work for Huma Roja (Marisa Paredes), the lesbian diva who's playing Blanche in A Streetcar Named Desire, just as she did the night Esteban was killed trying to get her autograph. And, through La Agrado, she meets the pregnant young nun Rosa (played by the ripe and lovely Penélope Cruz, who breathed a luscious vitality into Stephen Frears' deadly The Hi-Lo Country), who's replaying Manuela's youth, only with lethal consequences.

In his court-jester way, Almodóvar's the most enthusiastic of social levelers. A nun can fall, a hooker can rise, and though both may rail at their fate, their suffering is absolutely without bitterness or rage. Even his color schemes are egalitarian, with every street scene color-coordinated, mixed and matched in royal blues and blood reds and hot pinks. Trash has its own beauty: The circling cars of johns trawling for hookers at night beneath a Barcelona bridge are bathed in the same moonlit loveliness as the city's floodlit old buildings.

TOWARD THE END OF ALL ABOUT MY MOTHER, LA AGRADO steps onto a stage and, having itemized the cost of her many surgeries to an appalled audience of bourgeois theatergoers, enchants them with her unrehearsed thoughts on what it takes to be real. "You are more authentic," she concludes, "the more you resemble the things you've dreamed of." In Almodóvar's view, nature is overrated, while acting -- lying included -- is the cover that frees us to be our worst and best selves, and this wonderfully seductive set piece serves as a précis of the boisterously humane credo that animates every film he makes.

When Almodóvar began making movies, cross-dressing was hardly a commonplace of cinema, and certainly not in Spain, under the heavy boot of Franco. Today, with unrepentant heterosexuals like Robin Williams cashing in, drag has lost its teeth and turned cuddly. Perhaps because he's never gone Hollywood, Almodóvar is one of the few directors who stay raunchy without losing a mainstream audience. He made his first short films around the time of Franco's death. His work -- antic, exuberant, brash, lush, blithely deviant, lascivious -- tore open the staid prison in which that dour regime confined its film culture. Though All About My Mother contains scenes as candid and raucous as any of his early movies, it sustains the quieter, more reflective tone that began showing up in his 1995 film The Flower of My Secret. Perhaps Almodóvar is feeling his middle age. Perhaps he fears for today's youth. (In All About My Mother, the young die young.) Perhaps he's aware that an artist can only go on sounding the top notes of hysteria at the risk of sounding shrill. It's not insignificant that the pneumatic Victoria Abril has given way to older, more elegant and seasoned divas like Roth and Paredes.

As All About My Mother closes, this alluring coven of women -- touched again and again by disaster -- has shaken out into fresh unions, cemented not only by Almodóvar's elastic definition of womanhood, but by his expansively conciliatory spirit, assuring us that though anatomy may no longer be destiny, the kindness of female strangers is irreducible.

ALL ABOUT MY MOTHER | Written and directed by PEDRO ALMODÓVAR Produced by AGUSTIN ALMODÓVAR | Released by Sony Pictures Classics

Click here for showtimes part of the Almodóvar retrsoepctive at the Sunset 5.

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