“That dog would go with anyone”

Todo Sobre Mi Madre (Pedro Almodovar, 1999)

Almodovar is back at the moment, of course, and this one comes courtesy of the NFT’s Penelope Cruz season. I’ve not seen that many of his films but he’s a funny one. Although it divided opinion I think Volver was the first time he really clicked with me. This one, I find very impressive without actually liking it. Bolano’s 2666 had a great line about Spanish sexuality that immediately made me think of Almodovar and Bigas Luna, but I can neither remember it nor find it online.

This film is from around the period when Almodovar started to tone down the madcap hysteria and apply a glossy, classy finish. It looks good; very good in fact. A rich palette of colours. A lush, mysterious soundtrack to propel the intrigue and melodrama. A stylised and rain-sodden death scene at the start. Kerbrcrawlers circling transsexual hookers, shot to resemble a torchlit religious procession. Barcelona shown off at its prettiest- spacious, sunkissed apartments, rustic gothic alleyways, a taxi slowing down to let us take in the main facade of La Sagrada Familia.

He’s one of these directors who has used his oeuvre to forge a world that is recognisably his own. There are some neat ironies and coincidences; Manuela’s job involves training doctors to extract permission from bereaved relatives that the deceased’s organs may be donated to others, and her son’s heart gets harvested immediately upon diagnosis at hospital. One evening, Manuela and her son watch the scene from All About Eve in which Bette Davis declares that autograph hunters are “not human beings”. The next night, Esteban dies whilst chasing Paredes for an autograph.

The feeling I got was that Almodovar wants to be Jesus, getting washed by the prostitute. He’s going for the most marginal figures in society; promiscuous trannies who spread AIDS, hookers, lesbian junkie thespians, pregnant nuns with AIDS (!). Having assembled this shocking freakshow he gives them dignity and compassion, and if your heart and all your prejudices do not melt, it must be through some fault of your own.

The narrative about the single mother Manuela, the accident that kills her son and her attempts to work through the trauma and find a new life; this part, I found convincing and moving, with a great central performance. The wisecracking trannie Agrado is a good foil/sidekick. But with the other aspects, I hit a brick wall. They didn’t move me. I don’t think it was my innate conservative bigotry, either; to me the narratives felt contrived.

Lola, for example, was previously Esteban, Manuela’s husband. Lola went behind her wife’s back to have a sex change, cheated on her constantly and was abusive to her. Lola caught AIDS, then impregnated and infected Penelope Cruz’s nun. What were you thinking, Penelope Cruz is asked? A blank “I don’t know” is the reposnse. What else could one say? Lola doesn’t appear in the film until towards the end. She is shown pictures of the dead son she never knew, she weeps with regret and contrition. I didn’t feel inclined to join her.

As a grande dame of the theatre, Marisa Paredes is stately and watchable when she reveals her vulnerability to Manuela, and is rewarded by the protection of Manuela and Agrado. However, her tempestuous and eventually hospitalising love affair with a junkie co-star came off as corny and unconvincing (“She’s hooked on heroin, but I’m hooked on her”).

The indignant voices of Penelope Cruz’s prejudiced parents are the only ones excluded from the cosy network of friends. They’re from an older generation and the mother disapproves of all these lifestyles; in her first scene she is dismissive when Penelope Cruz suggests she employs a hooker, whom Cruz had only met that morning, as a live-in cook. I thought this was sensible enough but I knew I was reading against the grain.

The sad-eyed dad is senile and doesn’t recognise anyone other than his wife and his dog. He asks the age and height of everyone he meets, and has no further curiosity about them. It felt metaphorical. When Cruz dies, Manuela decides to take her baby away from the grandparents and raise it herself. Taken away from this oppressive environment, the baby becomes the first person in history to somehow cure himself of the AIDS virus; by this point the story is unravelling and we’re travelling at some 20,000 feet above the feasible. 

There’s a conspicuous lack of good men in Almodovar and you suspect that there would be a ruckus if anyone depicted women in such a way. Here and in Volver, if men are not inert and useless they are beating up, abusing and raping women. Even the male lead in the theatre group sees Agrado as nothing more than a sex toy, expecting favours on demand. It’s plain misandry and perhaps it accounts for my inability to jump into his world. Is it a Spanish thing, after the patriarchal repression of Franco?

Even as I readily acknowledge that Tobo Sobre Mi Madre is an absorbing watch, crafted with skill and style, I find something within myself resisting it.


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August 2009
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