To many, Pedro Almodovar is synonymous with a camp, trash worldview and is consequnetly posited alongside 'Eurotrash' and the films of Russ Meyer. Although 'All about My Mother' retains some of the outlandish traits of his earlier movies (significant characters include two transsexuals and a HIV positive pregnant nun, and his extravagant set and costume design remains undiminished), it marks a successful development of the more mature approach running through his recent movies, 'Flower of my Secret' and 'Live Flesh'.
The film contains many parallels with 'All about Eve' which Esteban (Eloy Azorin) and his mother, Manuela (Cecelia Roth), are watching in the opening scene. As a birthday present, Esteban is taken to a production of 'A Streetcar Named Desire'. Echoing Bette Davis' character's contempt for her fans, the play's star, Huma (Marisa Parades), leaves the theatre without offering an autograph to Esteban who had been waiting patiently. Chasing after the taxi, he is fatally knocked over.
Earlier Esteban had intimated to Manuela that the best present he could receive would be hearing all about his father. In response to this final wish, she attempts to find Esteban Snr., discovering that he had a sex change and became Lola the Pioneer. Manuela gets a job as an assistant to Huma who is still haunted by Esteban's face. Huma is in love with her co-star, Nina (Candela Pena), a junkie. Another 'All about Eve' reference occurs when Nina's addiction prevents her from performing. Manuela (as with Anne Baxter's character) deputises. However, contrary to the Hollywood version of events, this does not result in stardom as, due to Nina's jealousy, Manuela resigns from her job. A friend of Manuela, La Agrado (Antonia San Juan) takes her role and enables a scenario that encapsulates Almodovar's skill. On an occasion where neither Huma or Nina can perform, La Agrado delivers a monologue abour her life, together with details of the cost of all her facial tucks and silicone implants. While this scene provokes raucous laughter, it does not degenerate into a freak show. This illustrates the warmth and empathy in the portrayal of characters.
A theme running through the film is women's mutual support, as exemplified by Manuela nursing Sister Rosa (Penelope Cruz) who had been impregnated and infected by Lola. In contrast, fathers are notably absent. While the portrayal of women as caring in comparison to men reinforces stereotypes, films dominated by female characters are still a rarity. Such is his ability to coax inspired performances from actresses that Almodovar can be seen legitimately as inheriting George Cukor's mantle as the great director of women.
Even though the situations are linked by some absurd coincidences, the complex storyline is presented in a flowing fashion and the characters are developed to avoid being ciphers. In an era where American independent directors such as Neil LeBute and Todd Solondz, together with the Dogme creed, react to Hollywood's bland simplicities with sour misanthropy, it's welcome to see a film in which the director recognises human failings but treats them with sympathy and generosity.