This action might not be possible to undo. Are you sure you want to continue?
analysis of Todo Sobre Mi Madre Spanish filmmaker Pedro Almodovar brings to the screen the poignant yet captivating story of Manuela (Cecilia Roth), whom after losing her son in an accident departs for Barcelona in search of her son’s father, in his 1999 feature Todo Sobre Mi Madre. Densely packed with the use of symbolism, homage, dialogue, and cinematography Almodovar sophisticatedly intertwines both conscious and allusive references throughout the narrative and provides a powerful female ensemble cast. Todo Sobre Mi Madre is Almodovar’s thirteenth film and follows in the footsteps of his previous pictures, such as Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown (1988), Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! (1990), and The Flower of My Secret (1995). These films explore the thematic traits of feminine solidarity, sexual liberation, and organic womanhood. In Todo Sobre Mi Madre, it is most notably the realms of motherhood that quickly comes to the forefront and emerges as the primary subject matter to be explored, culminating in the ultimate cinematic tribute to women. The authenticity of womanhood is dictated more by being exposed to the woman experience than by simple biological attribution. Manuela, an organ transplant coordinator and single mother, has neglected to tell her son Esteban (Eloy Azorín) about the origins of his father. On the night of his eighteenth birthday, Esteban pleas his mother to tell him all about his father but never learns a thing as his life ends abruptly in a car accident. In an ironic turn of events, Manuela makes the decision to donate her son’s heart for a transplant and flees to Barcelona in
Duarte 2 12/8/2010
search of Esteban’s biological father, but instead finds a renewed sense of purpose as she inadvertently taps into her motherly intuition by helping other women cope with their own agony. Almodovar then progressively builds a powerful cast of women with eccentric personalities that exemplify the true feminine qualities. When Manuela returns to Barcelona, after eighteen years, she immediately heads to the hectic prostitution quarter. Among the throngs of cross-dressers and streetwalkers, Manuela coincidently reunites with her old friend Agrado (Antonio San Juan), a preoperative transvestite, when she helps her fight off an assaulting john. Later she is introduced to Sister Rosa (Penelope Cruz), an unconventional nun that helps employ streetwalkers and transvestites. And finally, Manuela seeks out the glamorous actress who denied Esteban's request for an autograph on that fateful night, Huma Rojo (Marisa Paredes). With no initial desire to help any of these women, Manuela in the midst of her own sorrow succumbs to her sensitivities. Each member of this newly formed sorority provides extraordinary perspective and insight that reinforces the themes of the narrative. With a crushed protagonist already in place, the introduction of Agrado’s character, which roughly translates into the pleaser, provides an appropriate balance. Comic relief never fails to ensue every time Agrado and her lively personality appear. When Manuela unknowingly comes to the rescue of her long lost friend Agrado, we get our first glimpse at Manuela’s compassion towards women. Even though Agrado is a cross-dresser, Manuela does not hesitate to defend her, which speaks to Manuela’s empowering nature. As a result, Manuela nurses Agrado who is badly bruised and lends her expertise, as depicted in the following scene, when she masterly requests medical supplies and
Duarte 3 12/8/2010
antibiotics from the apprehensive pharmacist. Manuela asks Agrado if she has any alcohol at home, setting herself up for a witty, “No, I drank it all last night,” comeback from Agrado. In Agrado’s apartment, Manuela hovers over her aiding her wounds, and the next morning makes a hefty breakfast. They both decide to look for work as a means to progress. Manuela’s assistance never seems forced, but very fluid. This is a clear indicator of how Manuela deals with her grief. We see that Manuela remains deeply affected by her loss as she continuously veers from talking about her son, but instead of just mourning she displaces her role as a mother onto her female counterparts. In their search for employment we meet the innocently frail, yet beautiful sister Rosa, who is not your average nun. In fact sister Rosa is boldly unorthodox, as she works closely with prostitutes and drug addicts, trying to rehabilitate themselves. Sister Rosa most notably displays qualities of selflessness and bravery when she tells Manuela and Agrado about her plans to travel to El Salvador to substitute recently murdered nuns. These very exquisite characteristics have put sister Rosa at odds with her stern and disapproving mother. In the scene where Manuela learns that sister Rosa is pregnant reveals how emotion is a fundamental aspect of motherhood. Sister Rosa pays Manuela a visit at her apartment and timidly gives her the news. Manuela immediately and understandably reacts with bafflement and disbelief. As their interaction continues and more scandalous details are unveiled, Manuela grows with anxiety. Finally, when it is disclosed that Lola, also known as the father of the late Esteban, also impregnated Sister Rosa, Manuela reaches her tipping point. Clearly overwhelmed with the news, she chastises the feeble nun with dialogue that is starkly reminiscent to that of a mother arguing with her daughter. With emotions now running high, Manuela agrees to accompany her to the hospital and regretfully denies her
Duarte 4 12/8/2010
request to house her. During the hospital visit, Manuela once again presumes an authoritative figure when speaking to the doctor, as she is well versed in the field. When sister Rosa gets the news that she is at risk of having a miscarriage, Manuela comforts her. The doctor then gives his recommendations to which Manuela quickly concurs, as she is inherently the one who ends up at sister Rosa’s side. When Manuela learns that A Streetcar Named Desire is playing in Barcelona, she decides to relive that tragic night when she took her son to watch the play back in Madrid, losing him that very evening. After the play, and with her son now fresh on her mind, Manuela makes her way into the dressing room of the show’s star Huma Rojo, which means Red Smoke. Manuela never formally introduces herself, but catches Huma in a troubled and frazzled state as her costar and lover Nina (Candela Peña) storms out to score some drugs. It is the intuition that women carry that literally drives Huma’s trust in Manuela. “Whoever you are. I have always depended on the kindness of strangers,” says Huma to Manuela as they make their way through a parking lot in pursuit of Nina. Manuela drives Huma around the city and, lo and behold, is able to find her, solidifying not only a job as Huma’s personal assistant but the sense of a rekindled maternal figure. Two weeks elapse and Manuela must now overcome a fresh batch of drama. Nina’s drug addiction is proving to be problematic for Huma, who is miserable, and for the show itself, which one night requires Manuela to substitute Nina’s role of Stella. Sister Rose is then diagnosed HIV positive and turns to the only person she confides in, Manuela. Subsequently, Manuela convinces Huma to hire Agrado so she can devote her time caring for sister Rosa and her unborn child, whom we learn will be also named Esteban. Manuela’s motherhood then truly
Duarte 5 12/8/2010
transcends as she ends up adopting the child after sister Rosa dies in labor. It is from this point on that Manuela’s spirit is revived as she accomplishes her initial task of locating and making mends with Lola. The experience turns out to be just a cathartic as she hoped it would. Then, she departs for Madrid with baby Esteban in tote, escaping from the child’s hostile grandmother. The role of women fiercely commands attention, as every female on screen, especially the protagonist, is strong, powerful, and determined. Almodovar flirts, as he always does, with the female identity, with the portrayal of Agrado. Agrado shares a hilariously captivating moment one evening when she learns that neither Huma nor Nina will be able to perform and with only fifteen minutes before show time and people settling into their seats, takes it upon herself to explain to the audience that the show has been canceled. However, Agrado takes the opportunity to invite the crowd to stay, promising to entertain them with the story of her life. The monologue1, which is brilliantly written by Almodovar, naturally flows off the speaker’s lips:
They call me Agrado because I’ve always tried to make people’s lives agreeable. As well as being agreeable, I’m very authentic! Look at this body! All made to measure. Almond-shaped eyes, 80,000. Nose, 200,00. A waste of money. Another beating the following year left it like this. It gives me character, but if I’d known, I wouldn’t have touched it. I’ll continue. Tits, two, because I’m no monster. 70,000 each, but I’ve more than earned that back. Silicone in…Lips, forehead, cheeks, hips and ass. A pint costs about 100,000, so you do the math, because I’ve lost count. Jaw reduction, 75,000. Complete laser depilation because women, like men, also come from apes. 60,000 a session…Well, as I was saying, it costs a lot to be authentic, ma’am. And one can’t be
Duarte 6 12/8/2010
stingy with these things because you are more authentic the more you resemble what you’ve dreamed of being.
A resounding applause is no surprise, as the monologue is delivered effortlessly and speaks to the underlying theme of the film. Dialogue is essential in narrative as the fast and spirited lingo charges many scenes, exhibiting the soul of these women, though much of their wit is drained in translation unfortunately. Even Spanish speakers may have to rewind at times in order to confirm certain phrases. It is Manuela however, that rises as the most compelling and believable character. It is essentially her prerogative to lie, improvise, and perform as a means of truly showing a woman’s capacity to act without being a professional actress. When playing Stella during a dramatic scene, Manuel is able to convey the same raw wailing we heard during her real life tragedy. Rooted within this elaborate plot is the astute incorporation of Almodovar’s most prized influences. Some incorporated works include, Joseph L. Maukiewicz’s All About Eve (1950) and Tennessee Williams’ play A Streetcar Named Desire (1947). All About Eve, does not only share an almost identical title in Spanish, but is the film Manuela watches with her son at the beginning of the film. Esteban remarks that the title translated in Spanish “Eva Unveiled” sounds odd. Additionally, Almodovar bluntly pays homage to All About Eve by including part of its story in Todo Sobre Mi Madre by having Manuela play Eve as she too sneaks into an actress’ dressing room and eventually gets hired as a personal assistant. Nina at one point makes mention of it, calling Manuela, “[An] Eve Harrington egalitarian!” Playwright Tennessee Williams is also evoked when his play A Street Car Named Desire, featuring Huma as Blanche Dubois and Nina
Duarte 7 12/8/2010
as Stella, emerges as the theatre production Manuela takes her son to see for his seventeenth birthday, right before his accident. There are a series of texts and artworks that are either mentioned or depicted. Artists like Boris Vian, Federico Garcia Lorca, Jean Negulesco, Marc Chagall, and Truman Capote are all echoed throughout the narrative. Futhermore, A famous trademark is present in the film’s title cards, which shares the same distinctive style and prolific typeface created by the graphic album cover designer who worked for the jazz record label Blue Note in the late 1950s name Reid Miles2. At the end of the film Almodovar states in text, “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.” In Almodovar’s notes about this film he specifically mentions the Bette Davis from All about Eve, the Gena Rowlands from Opening Night, and the Romy Schneider of The Most Important Thing: Love. He goes on to note that, “The characters in Todo Sobre Mi Madre are impregnated with the smoke, alcohol, despair, insanity, desire, destitution, frustration, solitude, vitality and understanding of those three actresses' spirit.”3 And surely enough, with every sequence laden with a cultural reference the film simply embodies a kingdom of womanhood with genuineness. The "Un Film de Almodovar" title card serves, not only as a simple credit, but also as the paramount term that instantaneously evokes consciousness of the filmmaker’s creative signature style. Almodovar films all carry the distinct techniques of highly stylized mise en scène and saturated Cinematography that manifest in this self-proclaimed cinematic genre. The filmmaker’s use of primary colors, predominately reds and oranges, are prominent in practically every shot of the film. The boldness the color red carries pops on screen and alludes to the
Duarte 8 12/8/2010
spirited nature of the woman depicted like Manuela, who in the wake of her son’s death manages to find it in herself to travel back to the very place she had previously escaped from. With construction of mise en scène Almodovar is able to play with the duality of color and emotion, while bringing attention to the most important parts of the frame. From a necklace, to a pen top, to a car, to a jacket, a touch of red is always present as it enhances the natural colors that surround it. Manuela’s apartment in Barcelona, which effectively serves as the epicenter of the drama, is elaborately decorated with brightly patterned wallpaper, retro-looking furniture, and other lively embellishments. The significance of this exuberant niche is revealed, as it becomes the main stage for when all four main characters spontaneously come together and share a rare moment of genuine kinship, while relishing each other’s company. The scene grows in intensity from the second Agrado makes her impromptu appearance until the coffee table is blanketed with empty champagne bottles and a sea of peanut shells at which point Huma decides to depart. From setting to soundtrack, one of the Almodovar film staples is his expression of Spanish pride. Born in Calzada de Calatrava, Spain and then moving to Madrid at sixteen4, Almodovar is instilled with the Spanish culture, which he comes to embrace and showcase with exclusivity in his motion pictures. Todo Sobre Mi Madre, shot partly in Barcelona, is no exception, though it is the first film he sets outside of Madrid. Manuel’s life is literally driven from Barcelona to Madrid, first when escaping from her unborn child’s father. Then from Madrid to Barcelona, eighteen years later in search of her late son’s father, and then back to Madrid when escaping with baby Esteban, and then finally again back to Barcelona to have baby Esteban get medically evaluated. These transitory sequences, depicted with fast moving tunnel shots, are significant because it establishes these two Spanish cities as dynamic settings for each
Duarte 9 12/8/2010
one is marked with its own set of despairs and triumphs. However, it is the way in which Almodovar orchestrates Manuela’s Barcelona homecoming after eighteen years that is truly resonating and fully shows Almodovar’s appreciation for this special place. Though Spanish composer Alberto Iglesias is responsible for the original score, Almodovar summons Ismael Lo for his melancholic song “Tajabone” which dramatically complements the previously mentioned sequence as the touching harmonica along with the soft strings play over a stunning tracking shot displaying the picturesque city from above. The film draws the viewer in, leading us inside the city and into the bleak vicious cycle that is Barcelona’s prostitution ring. Almodovar is also keen on how he executes scene composition as it relates to portraying emotional dispositions in a subtle, yet compelling fashion. One technique utilized is the occasional shift in perspective, as Almodovar alters the camera shots to replicate the viewpoint of paper, and a character, respectively. Esteban spends most of his time taking notes of his mother for a competition, and is always depicted with a pencil in his hand. At one point, we see Esteban jotting down a note, the camera viewpoint changes, acting as paper and showing the pencil suspended in the air as he writes. The method here lacks significance, and is disorienting. A more successful approach is used in Esteban’s death scene, foreshadowed four minutes earlier, the moment he gets hit by the car. We cut to a shot of a shattering windshield, followed by a slow motion long-take where the viewer presumably adapts Esteban’s bleak perspective in his last moments of life. We lay there with him, as Manuela approaches the screen. The sounds of the pouring rain are no match to Manuela’s hysteric wailing. The technique accomplishes its task this time, rendering the moment realistically, effectively, and heartrendingly.
Duarte 10 12/8/2010
With a collection of influences and his own artistic aesthetic the Spanish director Pedro Almodovar masterfully tells the symbolic story of how women from different walks of life all experience loss, growth, and triumph with Todo Sobre Mi Madre Almodovar. It is resolved that within all of his featured characters exists a mother, actress, saint, and even a man because as these women prove, reality is nothing but theatre. Though, it is Almodovar himself who says it the best, "Yes, women are stronger than us. They face more directly the problems that confront them, and for that reason they are much more spectacular to talk about. I don't know why I am more interested in women, because I don't go to any psychiatrists, and I don't want to know why.”5 Indeed, women will forever be a complex species, but at least we can have a greater appreciation of them with powerful works like Todo Sobre Mi Madre.
Duarte 11 12/8/2010
Works Cited 1. Todo Sobre Mi Madre. Dir. Pedro Almodovar. Sony Pictures Home Entertainment, 1999. DVD. 2. "The Birka Jazz Archive." Birka Jazz - Vinyl LP Jazz Records - Rare and Collectable. 1998. Web. 07 Dec. 2010. <http://www.birkajazz.com/archive/blueNote1500.htm>. 3. Elorrieta, Gorka, and Ana Bolívar. "Pedro Almodovar, Pagina Oficial." ClubCultura.com. 21 Dec. 2001. Web. 08 Dec. 2010. <http://www.clubcultura.com/clubcine/clubcineastas/almodovar/eng/engpeli_madre5.htm>. 4. Elorrieta, Gorka, and Ana Bolívar. "Pedro Almodovar, Pagina Oficial." ClubCultura.com. 21 Dec. 2001. Web. 08 Dec. 2010. < <http://www.clubcultura.com/clubcine/clubcineastas/almodovar/eng/engcronologia.htm>. 5. Arroyo, José. "TSPDT - Pedro Almodóvar." They Shoot Pictures, Don't They? They Shoot Pictures, Don't They?, 08 Feb. 2010. Web. 07 Dec. 2010. <http://www.theyshootpictures.com/almodovarpedro.htm>.
This action might not be possible to undo. Are you sure you want to continue?