Welcome to I Don’t Need No Stinkin’ Film School, my weekly article to prove that I have it in me to go from movie buff to film critic. With each column I try to better understand the art of filmmaking. As these are longish discussions, spoilers follow. For more from me, check out the rest of Defeating Boredom or follow me on Twitter, @Rob_Samuelson.
Earnestness has been a difficult element to use in film in recent decades. When utilized too much, it leaves an unforgivable pit of sentimental tripe. To modern audiences and the people making the movies, it implies a lack of depth. If we know exactly how each character will react to something — often with hackneyed emotion in stereotypical melodramas — then the story has been mapped for us. If there’s no chance for surprise, then how are we supposed to invest in what happens? Enter the ironic detachment of filmmakers like brothers Joel and Ethan Coen, who brought a sly, playful approach to the movies that placed a greater emphasis on acknowledging artifice and ideas rather than emotion. The Coens are perhaps the best directors of the last 30 years, but the filmmakers who have followed in their wake have, when faced with the possibility of real emotion in their work, gone so far in the opposite direction it makes one wonder if they don’t know how to deal with emotion or if they don’t want to. Thankfully, Spanish director Pedro Almodóvar does not shy away from melodrama. In fact, he relishes it and its effects on the audience. All About My Mother, his 1999 film about grieving mothers, AIDS, gender confusion, prostitution, and despair, somehow balances those deeply felt, melodramatic moments with an affection that makes everything palatable.
Taken at face value, All About My Mother should leave the audience in a depressive stupor. There is one truly good thing that happens to these characters in the movie. The rest is about enduring through the hardest parts of one’s life. In another filmmaker’s hands, a detached approach would have made the film unbearable. Almodóvar, though, depicts people grinning and bearing the awful things they come across in life. The joy he finds in these characters is mostly past tense, but it existed at one point, and the reminiscing done by Manuela (Cecilia Roth) and Agrado (Antonia San Juan) indicates a time when these characters were much happier. Manuela’s caring for an erstwhile nun (Penelope Cruz) through her AIDS diagnosis and ensuing pregnancy — bleak, heartbreaking things, each — shows the power of friendship in the hardest times of one’s life.
It is Cruz’s story that could threaten to be the straw that broke the camel’s back. After a series of miseries befall Manuela — her son dies after getting hit by a car, she escapes to her old life only to find one friend left, the transvestite prostitute Agrado, left, and her attempts to find her son’s father have been for naught — Almodóvar doubles down and reveals that Cruz’s Rosa, a nun serving the poor, had not only met the father of Manuela’s son, but had broken her Catholic vows and slept with him. In doing so, she contracts AIDS and becomes pregnant. One might expect Manuela to be furious at this development, but the twist — and a fascinating one, at that — reveals her, in her grief-stricken state, to latch onto this confused former woman of God. By caring for Rosa, Manuela is able to regain her lost motherhood and earn a sister she never had. Logic does not enter her mind in this moment. She is broken. She needs distractions from the hole left by her son’s death, and she throws herself into the middle of the lives of others, and broken people are all she knows.
One of those people is Agrado. Her character, while also being a rounded, funny, kind person, works as an symbol of what happens when one is unsure about life and one’s identity. She, like Almodóvar as a director and creator, wants to construct a narrative and project what she feels is her best self. She does this in an off-the-beaten-path way of plastic surgery to further her transformation into a woman, while neglecting to remove that key feature that will keep her biologically a man. She mentions that this reluctance is in order to appease her customers — she is a prostitute catering to men — something appears amiss. Her biological uniqueness is a part of her; a part she may at times struggle to appreciate, but one she feels keeps her special.
Those bombastic “This is who I am” statements, while perhaps not especially realistic, evince genuine emotion worth exploring. They also help mask the film’s more overtly “constructed” moments. Coming to understand the mental and emotional states of characters like Manuela, Rosa, and Agrado takes up much of the audience’s time, and they are unable to see the seams of the movie’s plot. When she first reconnects with Agrado, Manuela tells her about her desire to find her son’s father, who also lives life as a transvestite in the prostitution world, going by the name of Lola. Agrado has heard rumors of where Lola had been recently, which leads to the halfway house where Rosa works. As a matter of course, Rosa just happens to have been the person to last see Lola, and moves the plot along with her revelation of their sexual encounter. Later, when on the way to the hospital to give birth to her baby and subsequently die, Rosa and Manuela have a plot-friendly encounter with Rosa’s Alzheimer’s-afflicted father in order to give another emotional beat to the story; it may be one of finality, but it still feels rather convenient they could do this.
These opportune, melodramatic overtures aside, the film’s exploration of faith, particularly in Rosa’s case, helps soften the blow of these seemingly too-easy moments. That is because, while he ignores some of the more detached elements of our current postmodern filmscape, Almodóvar borrows its celebration of artificiality. Manuela’s son, Esteban, begins the film wanting to be a writer; to create drama, much like Almodóvar before him. A subplot involving two lesbian actresses invokes the needs of artists to construct stories; they get a subversive thrill out of torturing each other through drug abuse and co-dependency. The theatrical implications of Agrado’s late-film monologue about her explorations in plastic surgery becomes literal as she delivers it to an audience who had expected to see a play. That theatricality, that contrivance, should feel like a ploy, like Almodóvar is pulling one over on the audience. Instead, by weaving it through classic, overwrought melodrama, it becomes an engrossing, essential piece of cinema.