In his critically acclaimed 1999 character-driven drama film All About My Mother (1999); writer-director Pedro Almodovar cements his reputation as an expert on the complexities and intricacies of womanhood. The film features several complex and multi-layered female characters that are portrayed with great emotional depth. Throughout the course of the film, these characters are forced to struggle with impediments such as loss, betrayal and societal prejudice. Yet, in the end, they triumph over these obstacles and take control of their lives. The protagonist of the film, Manuela, suffers the loss of her son, Esteban, early in the film and is prompted to go on a journey to Barcelona, where she meets other women who are dealing with their own issues in life.
Through the events that take place in Manuela’s life and the relationships she forms with these other female characters following Esteban’s sudden and tragic death, the film explores the trials and tribulations women universally face and the various ways in which they cope and deal with these ordeals.
The film also pays homage to two of the most influential representations of female characters in cinematic history: All About Eve (1950) and A Streetcar Named Desire (1951).
The plot structure of the film serves to outline the various stages that take place in Manuela’s life at the wake of Esteban’s death, and, by extension, exposes the anatomy of how one in general deals with loss and tragedy. The film follows a linear plot structure that begins right before the death of Esteban and ends a few years later, when Manuela manages to overcome the tragedy. During the exposition, the character of Esteban and his relationship with his mother are introduced and built up. This contributes to the great shock and sympathy the audience feels when he unexpectedly dies in a car accident immediately after. The exposition also addresses the issue of suffering the loss of a loved one through sequences involving the reactions of the family members of recently demised individuals. Manuela’s subsequent journey to Barcelona signifies her immediate reaction to delve into the past and inability to move on in her life. Her goal is to locate Esteban’s father and inform him of his death. However, upon reaching there, she appears to begin the process of forgetting her sorrows and beginning a new life.
When she returns on the same train to Madrid, her priorities shift to her new adopted son, also named Esteban. In the concluding segments of the film, frequent jumps in time are used to display how life begins to move faster once Manuela is no longer holding on to her loss. In the closing sequence, when Manuela visits Barcelona again, all the characters are shown to have overcome the struggles of their past and moved on in life. The structure of the narrative is quite unconventional and serves to explore the intricacies of the characters rather than present much action. Initially, the plot seems to be goal-driven and based on uncovering Manuela’s quest to find Lola – Esteban’s father. From the beginning of the movie, suspense is created about the father, when Esteban repeatedly inquires about him. However, as Manuela reaches Barcelona and her life gets intertwined with other women who are trying to cope with their own problems, the plot loses a sense of purpose and no longer has a clear direction. This lack of focus parallels Manuela’s state of mind.
Manuela is in a period of self-discovery and does not have a specific goal in life at this point in the narrative. It also allows the film to freely explore the lives of these different women and achieve a level of emotional depth into their characters, and the issues they face. The audience, however, is gradually made aware of Manuela’s past and her relationship with Lola. In addition, she does end up meeting Lola, even though her priorities have changed by this point. Manuela’s past is revealed to be full of betrayal and loss, which puts her struggle to overcome it during the course of the movie into context. It is the struggles and triumphs of the characters in the film, led by the protagonist Manuela, that drive the narrative and keep the audience engaged. The film employs a first-person point of view, as we witness the events of the plot through the eyes of Manuela. This provides an emotional connect between the audience and Manuela while she faces the loss of her son and endeavors to recover from it.
During her train journeys between Madrid and Barcelona, Manuela’s inner thoughts are revealed though voice-over narrations. Each time she boards the train, she is at a different stage in her recovery process and her thoughts drastically change over time. The voice-overs help to reveal details from her past to the audience as well as her plans for the future. Although Manuela acts as the protagonist of the narrative, there are several peripheral characters in the film that help to move it forward. Upon reaching Barcelona, Manuela’s life is intertwined with many different female characters that are struggling with their own problems. As Manuela gets progressively more involved in the lives of these characters, she begins to leave her own sorrows behind. These characters also represent the different kinds of problems women face. Manuela, Agrado and Sister Rosa are linked by the fact that the same man, Lola, has adversely affected all three of their lives. Manuela also gets entangled in the lives of Huma and Nina, when she becomes their secretary.
The wide variety of problems these women face includes betrayal, neglect, societal prejudice and drug addiction. The ways in which they each deal with these problems also differs. They also end up helping each other in different ways to get over their troubles. These characters represent every woman. They play the roles of mothers, sisters, lovers and friends. They also come from different backgrounds; a prostitute, a nun and an actress. With Manuela at the center, the relationships that develop and grow between these female characters changes the nature of the plot from a search for Esteban’s father to a celebration of womanhood. It also provides hope for the future, through the solidarity of their friendship. At one point, the plot becomes increasingly complex, with Manuela acting as a nurse to Sister Rosa, secretary to Huma and trying to get over her son’s loss all at the same time. Yet, the manner in which these inter-relationships are presented is seamless.
The script includes several recurring motifs and cultural allusions that reinstate the challenges faced historically by women and suggest different mechanisms that they have used to cope with these hardships. It is often said that life and art have a reciprocal relationship; while art is usually based on life, life is in turn often influenced by art as well. This idea is highlighted throughout the script of All About My Mother (1999). In particular, two cinematic classics that deal with gender issues; All About Eve (1950) and A Streetcar Named Desire (1951), are strongly woven into the narrative of the film. In fact, the title of the film is a reference to the title All About Eve (1950). Moreover, Almodovar draws numerous parallels between his narrative and the plots of these two films. Manuela is forced to depend on the “kindness of strangers” on many occasions, just like Blanche in A Streetcar Named Desire (1951). In addition, she acts as an understudy for the role of Stella, usually played by Nina, and ends up giving a stellar performance; similar to the way Eve steals the role of her idol Margo in All About Eve (1950).
Long sequences with scenes from a television broadcast of All About Eve (1950) and enactments of A Streetcar Named Desire also make their way into the script. These works, through the characters of Eve Harrington, Blanche DuBois and Stella Kowalski, represent three diametrically opposite ways of dealing with the injustices faced by women. While Eve displays a ruthless ambition and drive to overcome the traditional prejudices of the theatre establishment against women actors, Blanche distorts her view of the world as a means of escape and Stella displays a submissive acceptance to the status quo & tries to adapt with the harsh realities of traditional gender roles. The female characters of All About My Mother, and especially its protagonist Manuela, adopt all three of these different stances at different periods of time in the film. Sister Rosa, much like Stella, accepts her fate without questioning when when she contracts HIV.
In contrast, Agrado shows great Eve-like courage when she attempts to take control of her life through plastic surgery and when she remains unaffected by the physical and psychological violence of her clients. Yet, there is a part of each of these fictional icons and their ideologies in all of these characters, and in every woman in general. Art in various forms, such as theatre and cinema, also acts as a structuring motif in the film. The concept of art and storytelling are touched upon through Esteban’s ambitions of becoming a writer, Manuela’s past as an actor and the productions of A Streetcar Named Desire starring Nina and Huma. The role of art as a source of inspiration for women and its power to influence their lives is encapsulated by Huma’s confession, “I started smoking because of Bette Davis”. Moreover, the potential of art to be used as a means of escapism is exhibited through Manuela’s repeated viewings of A Streetcar Named Desire after the death of Esteban. The idea of escapism as a means to cope with the harsh realities of life is further exemplified through Nina’s heroin addiction.
One of the most important motifs presented by the script is the train that Manuela takes to travel between Madrid and Barcelona. Each time she travels in the train, she enters a new phase of her life. The train symbolizes her ability to leave the past behind and move on. Through All About My Mother (1999), Almodovar pays tribute to the female gender and its cultural icons. The film is a celebration of all that it means to be a woman. It is also reminiscent of the strong and influential female characters in film history. In fact, he expressly conveys these sentiments in the acknowledgments at the closing of the film, “To Bette Davis, Gena Rowlands, Romy Schneider. To all actresses who have played actresses, to all women who act, to men who act and become women, to all people who want to become mothers. To my mother.” By closely blending a unique plot structure, strong character building and the use of cultural allusions, Almodovar creates a film that is unconventional, yet, simple.