We excitedly countdown to the 72nd Festival de Cannes with a different prize winning film each day.
Todo sobre mi madre / All About My Mother, 1999
Prix de la mise en scène – Pedro Almodóvar
Prix du Jury Œcuménique – Pedro Almodóvar
When it comes to depictions of passion in cinema we usually think of that word in the romantic sense. It comes fast and the experience is fleeting. But there are other passions, ones that linger – like the passion a mother has for her son. This word came to my mind while watching Pedro Almodovar’s Oscar-winning drama All About My Mother.
Almodovar lets emotion linger in key moments of this drama that pulls from Spanish language melodramas and classic films such as All About Eve. Where other directors might have truncated moments to move on to the next scene, Almodovar makes sure we feel every last bit of passion that is held within each reaction and each tear.
The story centers on Manuela (Cecilia Roth) and her only son, Esteban (Eloy Azorin). Manuela is a single mother, and Esteban has many questions about his father that have previously gone unanswered by Manuela. Esteban is a writer, and he has dreams of writing powerful plays like Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire. Manuela takes him to see the play for his 17th birthday, and something happens as Esteban attempts to get the lead actress’ signature that changes their lives forever.
By 1999, Almodovar was already a key name in world cinema, having directed films such as Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown. That film was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film, but it was not until All About My Mother that Almodovar broke through with a win in the category.
A key aspect of the film is its posture towards LGBTQ characters. There are two transgender characters that play major roles in the film’s story. After the film’s inciting action at the theater performance, Manuela is reunited with her old friend Agrado (Antonia San Juan), a transgender woman. From there, more characters are added to the melodramatic plot – including Penelope Cruz as a young nun. One of the most amazing aspects of this film is that the melodrama never verges into camp. Almodovar has such a care for the wants and needs of these characters, even if the story swirls in some increasingly fantastical ways.
Visually, Almodovar is a complete master in this colorful tale. He uses vivid colors and striking visual transitions between scenes to set the mood of the story. And his camerawork, particularly in the early scene after the play, puts us directly in the action. We feel like we’re a part of these characters’ lives, but then Almodovar is always one step ahead of us.
As Roger Ebert put it in his review of the film, “You don’t know where to position yourself while you’re watching a film like “All About My Mother,” and that’s part of the appeal…” One fantastic example of this is when Almodovar uses the camera to inhabit the pen that Esteban is using early on in the film.
The acting performances, particularly from Roth in the lead role, are fantastic. Here too, we see the line between drama and melodrama being toyed with artfully. Roth evokes the pain and heartbreak of the tragedies that befall Manuela in searing fashion.
This was my first experience with Almodovar, and I can clearly see why he is universally praised. The experience of watching this film was powerfully moving. I look forward to watching more of his films, a feeling that is always a welcome sign after the first interaction with a director’s filmography.