In my review of Volver (2006), I mentioned how Pedro Almodóvar borrowed from himself, using a subplot from The Flower of My Secret (1995). There is indeed a reason why that film stands as perhaps not one of the director’s best, but still an important work, because not only did it plant a seed for Volver but also All About My Mother, the movie that would become Almodóvar’s huge critical breakthrough, the one that made him respected among cinephiles all over the world.
In The Flower of My Secret, we see medical students being taught how to convince a grieving parent to allow her son’s organs to be used in transplant. Fast-forward four years and we have the beginning of the plot of All About My Mother.
Handling organ transplants
Manuela Echevarria (Cecilia Roth) is working as a nurse at a Madrid hospital where she’s handling organ transplants. She’s a single mother to a 17-year-old, Esteban (Eloy Azorín). One evening, after attending a performance of ”A Streetcar Named Desire”, Manuela and Esteban watch the leading actress, Huma Rojo (Marisa Paredes), get into a car and Esteban starts chasing after the car, eager to get the star’s autograph. Suddenly, he’s hit by a car and dies. The last thing Manuela does at work is agree to have her son’s heart used for a transplant – after that, she quits her job and goes to Barcelona where she tries to find Esteban’s father, a person the boy never met. She runs into an old friend, Agrado (Antonia San Juan), a transgender prostitute, but also makes several new acquaintances: Rosa (Penélope Cruz), a young nun who carries a devastating secret; Huma Rojo, who’s still performing ”Streetcar” on stage but doesn’t recognize Manuela; and Nina (Candela Peña), Huma’s co-star and drug-addicted lover.
Borrowing from other works
The Flower of My Secret is only a starting point; this is certainly a film that stands on its own. It does borrow from other works, but in inspired and clever ways. The famous Tennessee Williams play that is often mentioned in the film shares similarities; they both have a female lead who’s suffered personal losses. The most famous line in the play, ”I have always depended on the kindness of strangers”, seems relevant not only in Manuela’s life but in her new friends’ lives as well, not least Rosa, the frail nun, and Agrado, the tough sex worker who’s trying to draw a line between her occupation and the respect she demands in her personal life.
Almodóvar was also inspired by some of his cinematic predecessors. Perhaps the most obvious one was a scene that he pretty much stole from John Cassavetes’s Opening Night (1977) for Esteban’s death, but many critics were also reminded of Douglas Sirk (which is true of most of Almodóvar’s colorful films) and George Cukor; in other words, this is a melodrama centering on women, offering heartfelt emotions, hilariously frank dialogue and also moments that sting. The film addresses many different themes, including AIDS, motherhood, faith and emotional ties that bind people together in spite of time passing.
Honest, blunt and entertaining, even if the director isn’t as successful when it comes to the emotional impact as in Volver and Talk to Her (2002). The cast deliver all the way, including Roth as the mother whose grief is an open wound and San Juan as the prostitute who’s very straightforward about the procedures that shaped her body.
All About My Mother 1999-Spain-France. 101 min. Color. Widescreen. Produced by Agustín Almodóvar. Written and directed by Pedro Almodóvar. Cinematography: Affonso Beato. Cast: Cecilia Roth (Manuela Echevarria), Marisa Paredes (Huma Rojo), Penélope Cruz (Rosa), Antonia San Juan, Candela Peña, Rosa Maria Sardà.
Trivia: Original title: Todo sobre mi madre. Later a stage play.
Oscar: Best Foreign Language Film. BAFTA: Best Director, Film Not in the English Language. Golden Globe: Best Foreign Language Film. Cannes: Best Director. European Film Awards: Best Film, Actress (Roth).
Last word: “I’m conscious, of course, after making the films that [‘The Flower of My Secret’, ‘Live Flesh’ and ‘All About My Mother’] create a sort of trilogy. They are very different, but for me, when I think about them, they are a trilogy. Because since ‘Flower’ I have tended toward greater sobriety, greater simplicity and greater transparency in the resolution of each shot and each image. And more than ever in my previous films, pain is much more present. There is humor as well, like there is in everyday life. But it seems to me there is more pain than desire in these films.” (Almodóvar, Filmmaker Magazine)