All About My Mother (Pedro Almodóvar, 1999)
At home on DVD with Krystle and Jason as part of our little weekly movie watching club.
After having been blown away with Pedro Almodóvar's Volver two weeks before, I was anxious to see more his work. All About My Mother seemed like a natural choice given that it was one of his most highly acclaimed films and it also starred Penélope Cruz - albeit in a supporting role. The film also appeared to be a decent gauge for me to judge how enthusiastically I would pursue watching the rest of Almodóvar's works. I was aware that as much as I adored Volver - and saw it as sufficient evidence alone to merit calling Almodovar a great filmmaker - it was not as characteristic of his earlier and "edgier" films to say the least.
Read enough movie reviews and you'll inevitably encounter someone using Howard Hawks' classic definition of a great film: 3 great scenes, no bad ones. They do this not only because it's succinct and catchy, but because - despite the complexity of any art form - it usually works! I myself rarely go more than a few films without Hawks' old bromide popping into my head during reflection. And while no one would be foolish enough to uphold any "theory" as any absolute, the effectiveness of Hawks' "rule" is so logical and seemingly foolproof that when you find a rare exception it warrants a bit of investigating. Pedro Almodóvar's All About My Mother is such an exception.
The film certainly has no shortage of great scenes and not a single one that I can honestly discount as "bad". Just as in Volver (the only other film of his I've seen), every scene is a model of intelligent and/or compassionate writing on the part of Almodóvarwho continues to amaze me with his uncanny ability to write effective yet natural-sounding dialogue. And once again his all-female cast delivers an altogether flawless ensemble performance, no doubt thanks in part to his delicate and loving direction. Each scene is infused with such warmth - and I'm not simply talking about his characteristic palette of cinematographic colours - that is derived from a palpable sense of director who truly cares for his characters and is able to extend that sentiment beyond the screen.
Manuela (a fantastic performance by Cecilia Roth) may be the protagonist and surrogate mother to all the characters of the film but the title might just as well be applied to Almodóvar himself as the ultimate mother hen, proudly showing off his surrogate daughters in the characters of Manuela, Rosa and Agrado. As great as their performances are, one gets the sense that the real star of this film is Almodóvar. He sympathizes with them in their weakness (Rosa) and exalts with them in their triumphs (Agrado's theater monologue). Certainly no one could accuse or mistake him for a cynical director or Mother as a remotely cynical film. And yet he is sure to balance the drama within each scene so that it doesn't spillover into anemic melodrama. Where tears are shed by characters - and there are plenty of occasions - the tears are validated by their earnest portrayals and by Almodóvar's discrete direction.
Even scenes involving minor characters such as Huma or Nina whom lack this emotionally compelling component are redeemed by their thematic links to the film's overall theme of motherhood. One would be remiss in not mentioning this decidedly more "intellectual" component to Almodóvar's artistic contribution to the film. He is not simply content here to tell a nice story about some nice women, but to make a clear statement that extends beyond the diegetic world of the film and addresses the various roles of women and motherhood that he engineers into the plot: Manuela-Agrado, Agrado-Huma, Huma-Nina etc. And just to make sure the simpletons don't miss out on these "finer points", Almodóvar makes his thematic intentions unmistakably clear via the film's very title: All About My Mother.
I seem to be moving backwards. Not only have I established the film's scenes as being all emotionally compelling but on top of that, noted their "greater" intellectual and societal value. Entertaining and with something to say? Most films dare only try to achieve one of these goals and even they usually struggle and fail. What could possibly be wrong?
Three great scenes and no bad ones.
The problem with Hawks' definition has nothing to do with any loopholes, but its scope. Its very outlook implies that a feature film is nothing more than a collection of individual scenes with no proprietary attributes of its own as a whole. To put a twist on a another old saying, the whole is the sum of its parts. Of course we know this to not be true. And in fact, the act of editing together various stories and scenes is not only the one artistic element of filmmaking belonging exclusively to the medium (as opposed to being borrowed from literature, music, or photography), but ever since the earliest days of narrative cinema and D.W. Griffith, we've seen that this act can add immeasurable value to a film, or take away from it.
Watching All About My Mother one gets the tangible impression that Almodóvar is trying too hard to give his film added resonance and relevance via the aforementioned metaphors and allegories. Before we are five minutes into the film we're met with two garish allusions: Manuela and Esteban watching All About Eve on the television, and the play A Streetcar Named Desire which they attend. The problem of course with such an approach to artistry is that in order to be effective, elements such as symbolism or metaphors must appear to blossom naturally from the story and the characters themselves, not created for the expressed purpose of. If this were not the case then there would be no need for words such as "allegory", we could simply recount the underlying meanings themselves which would be indisputably more precise and it wouldn't take an hour and forty minutes to do either. We would have no need for art, only social scientists and essays. Instead, when we say that we desire art that deals with issues such as motherhood or transvestitism, we do not mean that we would like the world's foremost scholars on the subject to attempt to make a film, but for filmmakers who have a natural inclination and passion for the subject to tell stories that may relate to it. Mother feels more like the former, like a child who jams the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle to fit his/her own picture rather than placing them where they naturally fit.
Certainly history has seen a plethora of films that have failed because they set their artistic sights too high (or set any artistic sights at all for that matter!), but Mother is unique among these in that the majority of them usually don't even pass Hawks' test. They usually contain a multitude of bad scenes, bad not so much because the writer and/or director are trying to "make a point" but because in being so intensely focused on that, the characters, writing and direction suffer. Ironically, despite Almodóvar being the writer and director of the film, these blunders he makes in the plotting of the film do not spillover at all into his dialogue or direction. The result is more disjointing than anything. For example, the characters of Huma and Nina are exceedingly shallow and exist for no other reason then to enhance the mother-daughter theme of the film, and yet all their individual scenes are directed, written and acted with such care that in retrospect it's hard to believe that the man wrote these archetypal characters into the script is the same one showing them such love and compassion in his direction.
This effect is only further enhanced by Manuela's presence, or lack thereof at some points. By doing such a fine job of creating as complex a character as Manuela and emotionally investing us in her plight, tangential scenes involving Agrado or Huma and Nina seem exceedingly shallow and irrelevant in direct comparison.
Agrado in particular is a wonderfully developed and entertaining character, but amounts to little more than a goofy sidekick and Almodóvar's tribute to transvestitism. The scene at the theater where she wins over the audience is certainly a "great" scene: concisely written, entertaining, well-delivered and incredibly uplifting. But it seems to exist more as social propaganda (where the word 'propaganda' is not even inherently bad) than blossom naturally. In fact, one could even view her entire character as a microcosm of the film's seemingly contradictory problems.
Almodóvar's manipulation of time is equally puzzling and disjointing. At multiple points in the film, weeks and months are skipped at a time. We are shown something only long enough to logically understand what is going on but not nearly long enough to feel what is going on. Satisfying one of Almodóvar's goals while simultaneously diluting the other. It all seems rather backwards for a film that falls firmly into the genre of melodrama which emphasizes emotion over all else. These jumps only serve to call attention to how contrived the plot of the film is, particularly as it pertains to the relationship between Manuela and Rosa and most incredulously to the film's ending where Manuela leaves and returns to Barcelona in literally a single shot at which point we're told that her little Esteban has neutralized the AIDs virus completely. How convenient.
Given all the preceding convoluted mechanism, it's a real testament to the actors and to Almodóvar's direction that they're able to sell any of the later scenes at all. But as compelling, empathetic and sympathetic as Cecilia Roth's heartfelt portrayal of Manuela is, even her virtuoso performance eventually becomes overwhelmed by the machinations of the plot that elevate her above and beyond the cinematic angelic status of even George Bailey. Oh Almodóvar does his best to justify it all with the loss of her son - which leaves her a natural inclination to act as a surrogate mother - and by having his film take place in a decidedly more "gritty" and unconventional world than a typical Hollywood film, but in the end it's all a little too convenient. Once you peel away these misdirective layers, Manuela is really about as saintly and idealized a character as Hollywood has ever thrown at us and the plot of Mother as similarly and simply optimistic. Perhaps a more appropriate title for the film would have been "It's a Wonderful Mother".