THE title notwithstanding, Pedro Almodovar's great, grown-up "All About My Mother" is not just about one person, or even one single idea.
To be sure, it's about Woman in all her infinite variety (would it be Almodovar otherwise?). The main characters are an actress, a junkie, an artist, a nun and a hospital organ transplant coordinator. But it's also about a beautiful teenage boy, a baby boy and a couple of transvestite prostitutes. It's about motherhood, yes, but in this richly nuanced drama, seasoned only lightly with Almodovar's patented blend of wacky spice, the biological sense of the word is only the most literal -- and in some ways the least interesting -- interpretation.
The title is no accident, suggestive as it is of Joseph Mankiewicz's "All About Eve" (scenes from which are glimpsed near the beginning of this film). For "Mother" is also about dissembling, and not just the kind that takes place on and off stage in the 1950 classic about a conniving, stage-struck ingenue and her theatrical mentor. Like "Eve," "Mother" is about drama, divas and subterfuge, but it's also about romantic betrayal and reconciliation, the search for roots as well as gender authenticity. Does one need a womb, it asks, to be a mother, let alone a woman?
Almodovar barely gives you enough time to settle into your seat before he lets you have it with both emotional barrels. While waiting in the rain for an autograph after a performance of "A Streetcar Named Desire," 17-year-old aspiring writer Esteban (Eloy Azorin) is run over by a car, as his mother Manuela (Cecilia Roth) watches helplessly.
The accident, almost cruel in its casualness, is less tragedy than narrative device: It precipitates the real story arc, which is Manuela's search for Esteban, Sr., now an addict and streetwalker who goes by the name of Lola (Toni Canto), sporting an inch of makeup and a pair of silicone breasts. Traveling from Madrid to Barcelona in her search, Manuela seemingly encounters everyone in the world but Lola: first Agrado (the campy Antonia San Juan), another she-male sex worker who once lived with Manuela and Lola; then Sister Rosa (Penelope Cruz), a not-so-virginal nun and social worker; Rosa's judgmental mother (Rosa Maria Sarda); and Huma Rojo (Marisa Paredes), the actress whose reluctance to give Esteban her autograph back in Madrid led to the car accident that killed him.
There's all kinds of mothering going on: first Manuela, then Agrado, as personal assistant to Huma; Huma toward her much younger junkie girlfriend, Nina (Candela Pena); Manuela with the troubled Rosa; Rosa's mother to her senile husband (Fernando Fernan Gomez).
It's enough to make your head spin, but Almodovar, whose mastery of the medium has never been more assured, gives you plenty to think about, ultimately grounding the dizzy whirl of his idiosyncratic fictional world in a story that feels not just true but universal.
ALL ABOUT MY MOTHER (R, 101 minutes) -- Contains flashes of breasts, obscenity, discussion of sex and prostitution. In Spanish with subtitles. At the Cineplex Odeon Dupont Circle.