Review: All About My Mother

All About My Mother (1999)
Cecilia Roth, Marisa Paredes, Antonia San Juan, Penélope Cruz, Candela Peña. Written and directed by Pedro Almodóvar. In Spanish and Catalan, with English subtitles.

This one caught me slightly off guard. Although it’s emotionally overwrought and in some places overdone, there’s a sincerity in the characters and a gentleness of spirit that had me attached to characters I would normally have found barely tolerable. I’m developing a few issues with Pedro Almodóvar, but I keep going back for more of his rather different filmmaking language and his genuine sympathy for his characters.

In All About My Mother, Manuela returns from Madrid to Barcelona, in search of the father of her son. She meets Rosa, a young nun who works in a shelter for battered prostitutes who has problems with her family and her convent, and she is reunited with an old friend, Agrado. Agrado is a transsexual prostitute who’s tough, witty, and sensitive. His affection for Manuela and Rosa, and their affection for him, are the glue holding this film together. Agrado has an amazing scene where he performs an impromptu one-person show for a raucus crowd disappointed at not getting the performance of A Streetcar Named Desire it has paid for, but Agrado’s charm and sense of humor win the house over, and they win the viewer over as well.

Cecila Roth as Manuela is a chin-up, eyes-ahead, Mary-Tyler-Moore-like character, a woman who knows who she is and seems ready to handle whatever the world is ready to throw at her. And the world does its best to beat her into submission. Some of this is difficult to watch, but Roth’s performance is very good. You’d be friends with a woman like Manuela.

As I wrote in my review of Volver, one thing you learn from Spanish films is that love is reason enough. This theme is highlighted here: not only is it reason enough to do the silly, crazy things you do, but it’s reason enough to keep going when the world conspires to stop you. I wouldn’t call this an uplifting movie, but there’s a note of hope that makes me feel pretty good.


Review: Talk to Her

Talk to Her (2002)
Javier Cámara, Darío Grandinetti, Leonor Watling, Rosario Flores. Written and directed by Pedro Almodóvar. Spanish with English subtitles.

Here’s something you don’t see every day.

Benigno is a nurse who never leaves Alicia’s side, talking to her, sharing details of the dance performance he saw the other night, giving Alicia massages, and washing her hair. He’s been at it a while, tending to her while she’s in a coma, so he is quick to befriend a new arrival, to give (usually unheeded) advice to someone in a similar situation.

Marco is a writer who meets a famed woman bull fighter. He’s intrigued by her story, and although she is at first not at all interested in speaking with him for a profile, he does something heroic and they become lovers.

If I’ve learned one lesson in my years of watching admittedly not that many western European films but probably more than most of my countrypeople, it’s that love is justification enough for just about anything. And if you’re watching a Spanish movie where the love is established early in the film, the anything is soon to show up, and it’s probably unlike any anything you’ve already seen, even in other films by the same director.

Pedro Almodóvar’s Talk to Her seems to challenge my assumptions. Does love justify anything? Well how about this, and how about this? I’m being vague for a good reason, so I’ll say no more about the story and add that the performances of the two leads, Javier Cámara and Darío Grandinetti, just excellent, especially Grandinetti who plays Marco. His stoic coolness given to tears at moments of great beauty are the sexiest thing in this movie, and there are nude women in this film.

There is a moment where Marco loses his cool, yelling at Benigno not to do something Benigno says he wants to do, and to see all of Marco’s passion come out this way in this moment is admirable. It makes you kind of fall in love with him except that you’re already in love with him.

As in Volver, there are a couple of moments that make me wonder if Almodóvar has an eccentric alter ego who takes over the controls on the film for a day or two here and there. There is a scene from a black-and-white silent film whose imagery made me say (aloud, when nobody else was around), “Why is he showing us this?” and soon after a close-up shot of a lava lamp that made me say, “Are you even serious?”

But this is a movie about love, and I almost love this movie, so I’m going to forgive Almodóvar those moments, because a director who shows you stuff you’ve never seen and makes you go “Wow” is going to also make you say “What the heck?” once in a while. Also because love is ample justification for just about anything.


Review: Volver

Volver (2006)
Penélope Cruz, Carmen Maura, Lola Dueñas, Blanca Portillo, Yohana Cobo. Written and directed by Pedro Almodóvar. In Spanish with English subtitles.

The most striking thing about Volver is the nearly complete absence of men. They are present, but only to give the women someone to despise, someone to be admired by, or someone to provide them opportunity. There isn’t any romance, and the only friendship is with a woman so close to the central family she may as well be family. No, this is a movie about family.

At its center is Raimunda, a 30-ish mom to teenaged Paula. They have a typical mom-teen relationship, arguing over too much time on the cell phone and you-never-tell-me-things-anymore. Raimunda’s husband is a loser from the moment we see him sprawled on the couch finishing his umpteenth beer. He’s not worried about having to get up for work in the morning because he has just been fired and that’s fine with him.

Raimunda is closest to her sister Sole, who is older by several years and seems to have taken on most of the filial responsibility for their only remaining elder, an aunt named Paula. Aunt Paula is stricken with occasional dementia, and Sole is clearly stressed out with worry. If not for the daily visits and attention by Aunt Paula’s neighbor Agustina, either Raimunda or Sole would have to take their aunt in, a move which they are on the verge of making anyway.

There are unspoken tensions between all the women in this family, and writer-director Pedro Almodóvar gives us plenty of time to try and figure them out. Disagreements pop up about seemingly inconsequential issues, but little hints are dropped in the dialogue. Did someone go away for a time? Was there a division in the family? It might feel like something of a puzzle except we don’t have enough to piece anything together. Instead, we are carried along while these women sort through their tensions.

It might also feel like a tease, but the director is establishing believable relationships so that when we and the characters are confronted with the naked truth, their responses are real.

I have a couple of major issues with the direction here. Anyone who’s discussed movies with me for thirty minutes knows that I’m fine with film as a medium for the appreciation of women’s beauty. The world is a beautiful place, and film is a visual domain, and why not use it to celebrate all the many ways women are beautiful? Yet Almodóvar appreciates his actresses in a way that’s intrusive on our experience with the world he creates. For example, in one scene where Raimunda is washing dishes, we are confronted suddenly with an unexplained overhead shot that points right into Penélope Cruz’s cleavage. It’s not a POV shot, since nobody’s watching her from the ceiling, and it does nothing for the scene except to say, look at this gorgeous cleavage.

Cruz is a stunning woman with enormous eyes, a lippy smile, and yes, physical endowments that two of the female characters in the movie even comment on. But we have multiple opportunities to see them in context, the way the characters see them, and this isn’t one of those movies whose viewers are paying specifically to see breasts. Those movies are fine, and I’ve enjoyed more than my fair share, but everything in its time and place, you know?

I’ll add that Almodóvar takes it a little too far in showing us young Paula as well, although clearly not in a gratuitous way. These are POV shots, and they are important to the story, although they don’t just make a point: they make a point and then highlight, star, and underline it, and it’s just too much. Thankfully, while the character is in her teens, the actress was in her 20s when this was filmed, so it doesn’t creep over into borderline illegal territory.

My second major problem is a scene where Raimunda sings a song, and Cruz is lip-syncing to a track that’s so obviously not Raimunda’s voice that the scene is almost unwatchable. A horrible decision.

Still, a good movie with some fine acting and a look and feel you don’t get every day in American film. Madrid seems to be colored with a completely different box of crayons from the one we have in our American stores. The sunlight, wind, and sky all seem like they’re a different world, and it’s rather a lovely world to be part of for two hours. Oh, and not a movie for kids. There are themes of sexual assault, so approach with caution if you’re sensitive.