Pedro Almodóvar - All About My Mother


The transgressive Spanish director Pedro Almodóvar made 1999’s Todo sobre mi madre (All About My Mother) during the failing months of his beloved mother’s life. Of all the masterful Spanish actresses Almodóvar was drawn to as muse, his mother, Francisca Caballero, was the most profound. Francisca appeared in front of her son’s camera, with minor roles in Kika, Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown. She was also the inspiration for the powerful, headstrong, loving women Almodóvar crafted on-screen. 

All About My Mother - Pedro Alodovar

In a 1999 eulogy for his mother in the Spanish paper, El Pais, Almodóvar wrote, "Although I am not that kind of generous son in visits and cuddles, my mother is an essential character in my life.” He went on to say, “I learned a lot from my mother, without her or I realizing it. I learned something essential for my work, the difference between fiction and reality, and how reality needs to be completed by fiction to make life easier.”

Of his filmography, All About My Mother is the most fully realized and emotionally complex portrait of a mother on the edge. Argentinian actress Cecilia Roth brings a vulnerability to the role of the film’s central matriarch. Within the first 15 minutes of the movie, the central character, Manuela, loses her son. Heartbroken and alone, she tries to make peace with the secrets of her son’s parentage, including tracking down her ex-husband, who has now transitioned into a woman and prostitute. After relocating to Barcelona, Manuela submerges herself into two worlds — the sex worker underworld of Spain’s lower-class neighborhoods and the addiction-riddled backstages of her beloved theatre, which she left behind after becoming pregnant. 

Normalizing the worlds of outcasts is a hallmark of his canon. He puts his characters into environments they have either been afraid of or curious about to watch them bloom into something different in mind, body, and soul. A character is never the same from start to finish of an Almodóvar film. The same is true for the audience. While watching, we become frighteningly more aware of our fragility. Disease, death, loss is omnipresent in his world. His films reflect real life. It feels familiar in ways we wish it weren’t. But by venturing forth into his cinematic cabaret, we come out the other side feeling less alone in our trauma. 

The kitchen, for Almodóvar, is where the action happens. It’s where his heroines rectify the trauma of lovers, abusers, and Spanish dictator Francisco Franco, whose oppressive specter haunts the director’s filmography. Almodóvar embraces the warm domesticity of the kitchen while subverting all that can happen there. It is not a place for a woman to subjugate her duties but a place for revolt. Husbands, fathers, and rapists are killed in his kitchens. Urine, blood, and guts spill out and drench the floors with entrails. Crimson red paints this sacred space’s cabinets, walls, and even vegetables. How many times have we seen one of Almodovar’s characters slice a tomato? Remember the barbiturate-laced gazpacho of 1988’s Mujeres al borde de un ataque de nervios (Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown)? “I’m sick of being good,” says the jilted wife, Pepa (Almodóvar regular and Spanish icon, Carmen Maura), right before making the deadly gazpacho for her husband. 

Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown - Pedro Alodovar

In his punkish debut film, Pepe, Luci, Bom, Almodóvar subverted the kitchen and domesticity itself by having his heroines urinate on each other's faces there. This act was not a form of torture but pleasure. Underneath the perverse surface, Almodóvar reveals the desires and relativity within women chained to husbands and houses. It breaks the chains of their regulated gender roles, freeing them to be lovers, provocateurs, and, most importantly, fully realized. 

Pepe, Luci, Bom - Pedro Almodovar

The kitchen is not the only oppressive mechanism Almodóvar looks to deconstruct. The looming, violent shadow the Catholic Church casts over Spain is given the gut-punch by Almodóvarit has long deserved. In 2004’s La mala educación (Bad Education), his films have moved past the LSD popping, cocain snorting, lesbian nuns of 1983’s Entre Tinieblas (Dark Habits). La mala educación tackles the dense, disturbing history of pedophilia within the church. In a 2007 interview with GQ, he reflected on growing up in a Catholic boarding school by saying he “could almost literally see their hands dirtied with sperm” when recalling kissing a priest’s hand. 

La mala educación - Pedro Almodovar

Almodóvar handles the homosexual sex of the film with unsanitized tenderness. The scene where the two main leads fondle each other takes place where else — a movie theater, Almodóvar’s most sacred of spaces. Like his entire filmography, the consenting sex scenes are hardcore and honest. At times you cannot look away. In contrast, the molestation of the young protagonist by a Catholic Father is shot like a horror movie.

The cis-men of Almodóvar’s world are always the real villain. They are priests, pedophiles, fathers, Nazi-sympathizing husbands, domestic abusers, cheaters, and government officials. In 1984’s Qué he hecho yo para merecer esto! (What Have I Done to Deserve This?) the kitchen becomes a literal battleground of female autonomy. The title of an Almodóvarfilm has never felt more apropos. The film’s protagonist, Gloria (Maura, glowing yet again), obtains freedom by breaking the neo-liberal golden rule: she straight-up murders her piece of shit husband with the leg of ham meant for dinner. Like most of Almodóvar’s female characters, Gloria knew the way to a man's heart and used it to her advantage. Kudos. 

What Have I Done to Deserve This? - Pedro Almodovar

The subversion of domesticity and emphasis on motherhood reflects Almodóvar’s refraction of Spanish soap operas or telenovelas. Telenovelas were a favorite of stay-at-home wives and mothers in Spain as a source of escapism. Almodóvar creates his own postmodern telenovelas for women as a memorial for all the bullshit they have endured at the hands of brutes. 

After working one’s way through his filmography, the merry band of prostitutes, punks, drag queens, and sex workers who make up his films begin to feel like family. In this fictional familial enclave, there’s protection in the profane. Almodóvar’s films are a palace for women and queer peoples to be themselves, break free of conventions and gender norms, and even let out a fart if needed. This was his goal from as early as Pepi, Luci, Bom. There are three meta ads for a line of panties in the film. In the first one, a narrator assures women their product will cloak women’s gas with the smell of fresh flowers. In the commercial, the woman breaks wind only for her partner to exclaim, "What lovely perfume is that?" If only we were all so free. 

In Almodóvar’s world, his female characters are drawn as real and raw as his mother. Francisca’s influence can be felt right up through his newest, Parallel Mothers where Almodóvar is reunited not only with Cruz but with the concept of motherhood. As he weaves a new tale of two women who grow close as they give birth on the same day, in the same room, he embraces motherhood’s complexities and confusion. The film is a beautiful ode to not knowing what the hell you’re doing as a parent while learning to accept life’s messiness. At 72-years-old, Almodóvar is as punk as ever because he’s never forgotten being a mother is too. 

Pedro Almodovar - Parallel Mothers

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