Well, another Pedro Almodovar film and another round of reviews remarking on how serious the director has become, how his early outrageousness has been supplanted by a budding maturity. But maturity is less the issue than a gradual fruition of Almodovar’s long-term project to reinvigorate his chosen genre of soap operaish melodrama.
Almodovar’s most obvious predecessor is director Douglas Sirk, whose high-gloss ‘50s weepies such as Magnificent Obsession and Imitation of Life teetered between ironic composition and the straight-faced depiction of women suffering grandly. Like the films of that other disciple of Sirk, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Almodovar’s first forays into the genre relished its inherent absurdity, his grandes dames shading into gargoyles and the lashes of cruel fate becoming the tortures of comically complex plots.
Still, at the core of melodrama sits a nearly expressionistic depiction of genuine pain, and over the years Almodovar has become more and more adept at depicting those moments of hyper-grief in a manner that pierces our smart-ass, millennial defenses – less a matter of maturity than of accumulated expertise (or perhaps they’re the same thing?). And he’s done this without abandoning his twisty plots or gender-bending (though much too corrosive for camp) milieus.
All About My Mother, its title echoing Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s classic film homage to theatrical cant, All About Eve (1950), crams a bevy of gay signifiers into its opening moments – Manuela (Cecilia Roth) and her teenage son Esteban watching Bette Davis in the Mankiewicz film on TV; Manuela reading to Esteban from his favorite book, Truman Capote’s Music for Chameleons; the two of them going to see a production of A Streetcar Named Desire – before the plot is kick-started by Esteban being hit by a car and killed.
From there it’s Manuela’s story, her journey to find her ex-husband, a transsexual who abandoned her and her son some years ago. On the way to this reunion, she befriends the lavishly theatrical actress Huma Rojo (Marisa Paredes), a chameleon named Agrado (Antonia San Juan) who starts as a caricature but deepens into one of the film’s most affecting people, and a series of strangers on whose kindness she must depend – including, as proof that the old Almodovar spirit is intact, a young pregnant nun with AIDS.
Almodovar has set out to make a film about acting or, as he puts it, "the capacity to act of certain people who are not actors" – acting as a means of defense against suffering, but also acting as a way of working your way to a persona preferable to the one you began with. Or, as Agrado says in the film, "the closer you become to being the person you dream of being, the more authentic you become."
A dubious concept, but as good an explanation of the appeal of classic melodrama as you’ll ever hear.
Richard C. Walls writes about the arts for the Metro Times. E-mail him at [email protected].