Rated R - Running Time: 1:41 - Released 11/24/99

Except for those who live in large cities, most Americans do not get a chance to see movies that aren't in English. Besides, American moviegoers, whose average age is about 14, are so appalled at having to read subtitles, they would usually just as soon forget it anyway. But when a movie wins the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film, it helps convince distributors to take a chance with a wider audience, and so even we ignorant, shoeless, backwoods types get a chance to sit up and take notice. So it is with Pedro Almodóvar's Todo Sobre Mi Madre, or All About My Mother. An emotional film about parental love found in places where you'd least expect it, Todo Sobre Mi Madre is profoundly effective, mining the talents of distinguished Spanish actresses Cecilia Roth, Penélope Cruz, Marisa Paredes (Life Is Beautiful), and Antonia San Juan, a transsexual actress whose natural, energetic performance practically steals the scene every time she appears.

The title madre is Manuela (Roth), a former actress from Barcelona who moved to Milan when her husband decided he could function better as a woman. What he didn't know is that she was expecting their son at the time. In Milan, Manuela raises Esteban the best she can until he is hit by a car and killed on his 17th birthday. After she discovers in his diary that he had always desired to know his father, she returns to Barcelona to find "Lola," the woman who used to be the man she loved, and to confront famous actress Huma Rojo (Paredes), who is indirectly responsible for his tragic accident. While searching, she meets her old friend Agrado (San Juan), still working as a prostitute, and Agrado introduces her to Rosa (Cruz), a pretty young nun known for helping hookers who are down on their luck. What she discovers about Rosa brings an unwelcome rush of emotion and memory to Manuela, but leads her, in a way, to the fulfillment of her son's last wish.

Although for a person who doesn't speak Spanish there may be a slight diminishment of this film's effect, the performances are strong enough to blast through that barrier with little difficulty, allowing the audience to experience the emotion that is so powerfully present in every scene. The use of A Streetcar Named Desire throughout the film is a wise move on Almodóvar's part, providing worldwide audiences with something familiar. Even though the entire film takes place in Spain, with much commentary about Spanish society, Americans and anyone else familiar with Tennessee Williams's classic play can see the symbolism provided by it.

As well as excellent turns by the four actresses listed above, there are also strong supporting acts by Candela Peña as Huma's junkie co-star, Rosa María Sardà as Rosa's horrified but loving mother, and Eloy Azorín as the short-lived Esteban, the only significant male part in the film. As writer, Pedro Almodóvar has crafted a fascinatingly complex play-within-a-play, with depth not unlike that of Williams, and diverse, interesting characters who, although some represent lifestyle choices that differ from the accepted norm, are likeable and sympathetic nonetheless. As director, he has demanded the true fleshing-out of those characters, even though some are only on screen for a few minutes, and therefore allowed a truly talented cast to shine. ****½

Copyright 2000 by John R. McEwen and The Republican

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