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Saturday, April 22, 2000

'ALL ABOUT MY MOTHER'

Women on the verge of true love


No one can say of a Pedro Almodovar movie that women are not appreciated. If anything, it's the other way around, and with his latest, "All About My Mother" (Academy Award winner for Best Foreign Film), the sentiment surfaces full force. With this single film he speaks more about women and womanhood than a thousand feminist treatises put together and he does so with unflagging love to the very last frame.

One wonders what sort of childhood Almodovar had, what kind of relationship he had with his mother and whether he spoke with his father at all. If only Sigmund Freud were around today. He'd have the director lying on the couch in no time and probing into his dreams. But perhaps Pedro would be unresponsive. If "All About My Mother" is anything to go by, straight men occupy the lowest rung in his ladder of lovable human beings.

There are only two heterosexual men in this film, but one is killed off in the first five minutes and the other has Alzheimer's and has totally lost it so he doesn't really count. Come to think of it, make that 1.5 heterosexual men -- we're never really sure about the sexual preferences of the one who dies, who talks about "selling my ass" and is seen in the company of no woman except his mother.

As for the women, they don't seem to have much need for the normal, 9-to-5-type of guy. And Almodovar's point is: Why should they? In a country as aggressively macho as Spain, men have made themselves so insufferable that women have no choice but to avoid them like the plague. To underscore this point, Almodovar repeatedly uses scenes from "A Streetcar Named Desire," and has a dark, Spanish version of Stanley Kowalski strut his male chauvinism with klunky insensitivity.

For his tribute to womanhood, Almodovar chooses "All About Eve" -- alluded to throughout, not as a tale of female deviousness but to point out the survival tactics used by women who must get along in a man's world. Not content to just tell a story, Almodovar weaves in little homages to both movies, nuggets of similarity, allusion and borrowed wisdom.

The final result is the cinematic equivalent of an evening dress, catching and reflecting every incidental ray of light and admiring gaze within a 2-km radius. You see a woman in such a dress and there is no choice but to let your jaw hang open and fall to your knees.

Manuela (Cecilia Roth) is a single mother in Madrid who works as an organ donor coordinator while bringing up her 17-year-old son Esteban (Eloy Azorin). Every time he asks her about his father, she changes the subject. Manuela cannot bring herself to tell him that his dad was a transsexual with bigger breasts than she, radiating perfume and sensuality from every well-cleansed pore. But on his birthday Esteban is killed in a car accident and Manuela is seized by a shattering regret. She should have told him, and she should have brought father and son together, before it was too late.

Manuela then leaves for Barcelona to look for her long-lost love. Her quest brings her to Agrado (Antonia San Juan), former best friend and also a transsexual, now working as a prostitute at a field outside town. Agrado introduces her to Sister Rosa (the ever lovely Penelope Cruz), a nun who works specifically with people suffering from sexual-identity crises. Sister Rosa takes to Manuela immediately and confesses that she is pregnant by Lola, who also happens to be Esteban's father.

Manuela is at first outraged at Rosa's lack of taste but then she remembers how seductive Lola could be, to both sexes: "He was a pure macho with big tits." Manuela takes Rosa under her wing. Rosa is badly in need of caring, since she has also contracted AIDS through Lola.

As you can see, the women in "All About My Mother" take care of themselves just fine with zero male support. Freed from the restrictions of heterosexuality, these women show themselves capable of a real love, the kind that I thought only existed in the prayer of St. Francis: never predictable or mundane, generous and beautiful to the end.

Almodovar makes one other acute observation: that all women are natural actresses since acting is one of the most important skills necessary to get along with men. In an interview, he described how he observed the women in his family seemingly catering to the man of the house, while all the time they were just playing a part in order to keep him quiet and get things done.

On-screen, Manuela slips in and out of her acting mode, as do the other ladies, but they're acting anyway so you see Almodovar's point. Womanhood has no secrets from this man and the best part of it is that he seems to love and revere every little detail.

If you feel like you're losing your sheen, "All About My Mother" will give you more mileage than an herbal bath, massage and new lipstick combined.

"All About My Mother" opens April 29 at Cine Saison Shibuya. Dialogue in Spanish.


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