All They Desire
Matthew Eng on All About My Mother
There is an unforgettable anecdote often repeated in my family about my Brooklyn-bred, Italian-American maternal grandmother Elizabeth. Pulled out of her junior year of high school at the age of 16, she was put to work alongside her twin sister as a waitress in the family pizzeria in Red Hook upon the death of their father. Three years later, she married my grandfather, Francis, a war veteran and longshoreman, and went on to raise four children with him in a two-bedroom, fourth-floor walkup that she resided in for five decades. When my grandmother died in 2017 after an arduous but tenacious battle with cancer, the gulf between the New Jersey nursing home in which she passed and the borough that was the only home she had ever known was its own source of sorrow.
The story goes that my mother, then six, was racing her block’s resident bully. The boy’s pregnant mother was watching them from atop her stoop, as was my grandmother, albeit from her usual perch, in the window of one of the street-facing bedrooms. My mom was sternly scolded by the boy’s mother for a reason that eludes her to this day. Upon hearing this, my grandmother, then a parent of three, poked her head out of the window, and screamed down to the woman, “If you weren’t pregnant, I’d wipe the street with you.”
My beloved, headstrong grandmother has infiltrated my thoughts constantly in the years since her passing, often while watching and revisiting the films of Pedro Almodóvar. Matriarchs of all stripes—self-sacrificing, amphetamine-popping, tough-as-nails, ranchera-crooning, obstinate, husband-burying, stoic—have long been the cornerstone of so much of Almodóvar’s cinema. There is a harried mother who permits her prepubescent son to shack up with a lecherous dentist to take some of the strain off her workload (1984’s What Have I Done to Deserve This?); a neglectful, pop star mother whose absence is the cross that her daughter bears in perpetuity (1991’s High Heels); and another who barely breaks a sweat as she covers up a grisly crime and reinvents herself as a savvy restaurateur before reuniting with her own presumed-to-be-dead mother (2006’s Volver). Even the utterly bonkers The Skin I Live In (2011), which pivots on a mad surgeon’s torrid attraction to the prisoner on whom he has performed an involuntary vaginoplasty, ends on a mournful beat of hard-won reunion between a mother and her son-turned-daughter. It isn’t a stretch of the imagination to imagine my grandmother’s threat coming from the mouth of any one of Almodóvar’s fierce materfamilias, whose protectiveness is all but instinctual, their brashness an armor against a world inclined to disrespect and devalue them.
Almodóvar’s women affected me deeply at an early age and continue to do so, not least because the actresses tasked with bringing them to life expanded on their director’s genius with a brilliance all their own. Watching Carmen Maura, Cecilia Roth, Marisa Paredes, Victoria Abril, Penélope Cruz, and numerous others animate Almodóvar’s movies at their very center, echoing characters played by Bette Davis, Vivien Leigh, Anna Magnani, Gena Rowlands, and other awe-inspiring legends whom I was simultaneously discovering, moved and marked me indelibly as a closeted teenager not yet able to comprehend the reasons for such an ineffable yet platonic attraction. (In truth, I wonder if I will ever completely comprehend these reasons.) As someone who gravitated, with varying degrees of consciousness, towards women in my family, in my classrooms, and on screen, these women astounded me, acting out difficult, inconvenient emotions with a boldness that I would never have dared summon in my youth, where the act of crying, which seemed to me instigated by forces beyond my control, brought me emasculating shame.
Could it be that this abiding connection is rooted in the same reasons that Almodóvar creates these characters? “I will write male and female characters,” the director told the New York Times in 2016, “but I do find at least in Spanish culture, women to be more vivacious, more direct, more expressive, with a lot less sense of being fearful of making a fool of themselves.” Almodóvar’s reputation has been built on his status as an authority when it comes to the exterior experiences and interior lives of women, his knowledge culled from years of doting observation, particularly of his mother and other women whom he loved and lived alongside as a child in rural Calzada de Calatrava. This identity has been heartily endorsed by fans, critics, and especially the actresses gifted with distinctive, career-defining characters by the auteur after being starved for complex material elsewhere.
Many of Almodóvar’s detractors, at home and abroad, beg to differ. “Oddly, [Almodóvar] is often credited with being sympathetic to women—perhaps because he gives them something interesting to do,” Caryn James wrote in a virulent 1992 Times pan of High Heels, painting the filmmaker’s ascendancy as a threat to progressive cinematic portrayals of women. “The wrong-headed assumption is that Mr. Almodovar [sic] knows and loves his female characters. In artistic terms he is like a sexist who thinks he treats women fairly, then clings tenaciously to his masculine authority.”
What do we talk about when we talk about the quintessential Almodóvar Woman, if such a type truly exists? The trademarks of vibrancy, voluptuousness, and emotional abandon that these Hispanic and Latinx women are frequently remembered as possessing—and that I would have certainly remembered them as possessing as an unenlightened adolescent—tend to reek of exoticization, discounting the pragmatism and resiliency that his women evince throughout their narratives. So often, attempts to generalize Almodóvar’s women can appear to be nothing more than a foolish gesture at some shared truth about womanhood, whether in Spain or the world over. It works from the misleading idea that because Almodóvar’s gaudy, febrile, and deeply personal career has been committed to telling stories of Hispanic and Latinx women—some of them, especially secondary characters, veering towards the flighty and bumptious—it is somehow inherently emblematic of Spanish and Latinx women on the whole. It is an assumption that not only disregards the transition in Almodóvar’s filmmaking at the end of the past century that saw his irreverence leavened by the sagacity and seriousness of age, but makes Almodóvar himself into an all-knowing master of these women, rather than a restlessly inquisitive creator of them. Such efforts bring to mind a passage from Rachel Cusk’s 2018 auto-fictional novel Kudos, in which a woman writer bemoans the experience of being asked to share her dreams during an all-female panel: “…I suppose the moderator was hoping to elicit our so-called honesty; as though, she said, a woman’s relationship to the truth were at best unconscious, when in fact it might simply be the case that female truth—if such a thing can even be said to exist—is so interior and involuted that a common version of it can never be agreed on. It’s a saddening thought, she said, that when a group of women get together, far from advancing the cause of femininity they end up pathologizing it.”
James’s damning assertion, shared by others, that Almodóvar “creates strong women characters then takes away their strength,” bespeaking a “definite trace of misogyny lurking beneath his apparently fond creations of women,” seems to demand that Almodóvar champion women rather than contend with the personal, emotional, and psychological morass that makes for great, grandiose melodrama—which isn’t to say that there aren’t limitations and blind spots to Almodóvar’s perspective. There’s a salient insight embedded in that Times profile, courtesy of Emma Suárez, who stars as the punished, titular mother of Julieta (2016), that suggests a far more personal extension between the director and his women on the verge: “[Almodóvar] is a man with a great sensitivity and with a tragic sense of life. I think women end up serving as a vehicle to express all these feelings for him.” There has always been a real ache gnawing beneath the flamboyance of Almodóvar’s women, one reciprocated by the director himself and felt most palpably in the travails of his on-screen mothers.
So many of Almodóvar’s mothers seem to live only for family, seldom acting on the impulses and desires that they negate in their day-to-day existences. All About My Mother, the Oscar-winning turning point of Almodóvar’s career, melded the creative spirits of John Cassavetes, Federico García Lorca, and Tennessee Williams, and solidified its director’s crossover stardom. It also contains perhaps the paradigmatic Almodóvar heroine: Cecilia Roth’s Manuela, an Argentinian émigré and industrious single mother who works as an ICU nurse facilitating her ward’s donor transplants and whose life is undone and remade by the untimely death of her only son. “Would you like to be an actress?” 17-year-old Esteban (Eloy Azorín) asks Manuela in the film’s opening passage, a scene set the night before Esteban’s demise and which establishes the pair’s domestic closeness and discomfort. Mother and son are sitting side by side on the living room couch, eating dinner and watching All About Eve. When Manuela jokingly tells Esteban to bulk up in case he needs to work the streets one day to support her, his response (“You don’t need pounds for that. You need a big dick.”) unnerves her, a ribald disruption of the familial propriety that Manuela seems more intent on maintaining. When Esteban next asks, “Would you prostitute yourself for me?” Manuela replies, “I’ve already done just about everything for you,” wiping away food from the corner of her son’s mouth. Like Stella Dallas and many movie matriarchs before her, for Manuela, to mother is to inevitably martyr oneself. But the gesture’s intimacy also belies the chasm that exists between these characters; the conversation reveals that Esteban knows little to nothing of his mother’s past, including the identity of the birth father who has been deliberately kept from him.
Although Esteban departs All About My Mother, he never quite relinquishes his function as an avatar for Almodóvar’s authorial perspective, a specter from whose gaze we are always watching Manuela. Esteban appears unduly observant of his mother’s completely credible performance as a new widow in a donor simulation, the filming of which she has agreed to let him watch as a birthday present. He quietly, raptly studies his mother, making of her a reluctant muse, dashing off the film’s Spanish-language title “Todo sobre mi madre” on a page of his journal during their All About Eve screening. I’m not sure any image has ever spoken as directly to this actress-obsessed, proto-queer cinephile than the one espied by Esteban from a café window of two of his most formative figures: Manuela, expectantly waiting for her son outside a theater on his birthday and the resplendent stage star Huma Rojo (Marisa Paredes), appearing behind her in an enormous poster of the touring production of Williams’s A Streetcar Named Desire, which is playing Madrid on the same rainy night that Esteban will lose his life in pursuit of its leading lady’s autograph.
As someone captivated and mobilized by film actresses for as long as I can remember, I am always moved by the look of monomaniacal wonder spread across Esteban’s face as Huma stares back at him from a window that is itself a sort of impenetrable screen. I feel that same sensation whenever I watch Roth in the pinnacle of her sporadic collaborations with Almodóvar, who first cast the actress in a bit part in his 1980 debut, Pepi, Luci, Bom and Other Girls Like Mom before making her the lead of his polymorphously perverse Labyrinth of Passion (1982). The international reception of All About My Mother failed to give Roth the credit she warranted for grounding Almodóvar’s film in a register of authentic emotional truth. Her virtuosic performance, in which she is called upon to convulse with volcanic sorrow in one scene and then suddenly freeze with a fixed and forlorn gaze in the next, is far more sullen and naturalistic than the spirited, screwy, and seemingly larger-than-life comedic stylings of the Carmen Maura and Victoria Abril turns that helped epitomize the Almodóvar Woman. Then again, these same actresses delved far deeper into their roles than critics at the time cared to admit, finding and foregrounding heartbreaking humility and casting a melancholic cloud over the surface merriment. Manuela remains the quintessence of Almodóvar’s embattled yet undaunted heroines. Roth—her warm voice emitting a gravelly husk around its edges, her face lightly etched with the emergent lines of a woman on the cusp of middle age and still weathering life’s storms—makes clear that the role of problem-solving matriarch is an expansive and lasting one, enacted with calm and unwavering focus by a practitioner who maintains reason even when admitting that to grieve is to exist without reason.
Manuela emerges over the course of the film as a natural mother and an expert dissembler. She has spent 17 years struggling to allay her son’s suspicious inquiries, diverting his attempts to know her, a behavioral pattern she will repeat with her newfound friends and skeptical acquaintances in her onetime home of Barcelona. Esteban dies mere minutes after his mother promises to tell him everything about her past, an irony even crueler than the deceased son of a donor coordinator becoming a donor himself. Manuela’s decision to come clean is instigated by revisiting Streetcar, a text that she will later admit has “marked” her life. Manuela and Esteban are seen watching the final scene of Streetcar in Madrid, the former brought to tears not by Huma’s self-delusional Blanche DuBois but by her unassuming and increasingly peripheral sister Stella, who flees from her brutal husband Stanley at play’s end with their newborn son in tow, ensuring him a future unpolluted by his father’s savage entitlement. Manuela keenly relates to Stella, the character she tells Esteban she once played in Buenos Aires, one who ultimately renounces her lustful bond to the treacherous and overpowering man who has sired her a son. Manuela has the same backstory: many years ago, a pregnant Manuela fled the suffocating clutches of her unfaithful and domineering spouse, Lola (Toni Cantó), who left their Argentine home a man, purchased a pair of breasts while working in Paris, and reunited with her wife in Barcelona, where she opened a beachside bar and reverted to paternalism by treating Manuela as subordinate. Evidenced most luridly by the incestuous, pedophile paterfamilias of Law of Desire (1987) and Volver, fatherhood and patriarchy in general are largely toxic forces in the Almodóvar cosmology; despite her gender-swapping surgery, Lola is not exempt from enacting similar treachery.
Forced to reconfigure a life that has lost its reason for being, Manuela follows her son’s heart to A Coruña, where it has been placed in the body of a middle-aged man. She then quits her job and decides to trace Esteban’s lifespan in reverse by returning to Barcelona to notify Lola of the death of a son she never knew she had. It is a circuitous search, filled with chance encounters that lead her first to Agrado (Antonia San Juan), a trans sex worker and former confidante whom Manuela saves from strangulation by one of her johns while working the dodgy cruising grounds at night. Through Agrado, Manuela meets Rosa (Penélope Cruz), a young and virtuous nun led astray from her path of righteous servitude by the aging and drug-abusing yet still seductive Lola, who has not merely impregnated Rosa but infected her with HIV. Despite her protestations, Manuela soon finds herself playing mother to the helpless Rosa. Manuela also reencounters Huma, whose production of Streetcar has coincidentally stopped in Barcelona, and lands the role of the actress’s personal assistant after helping her locate her young lover Nina (Candela Peña), an easily riled heroin addict who plays Stella opposite Huma’s Blanche. Together, these four women form a small and unorthodox matriarchy, one untrammeled by men and presided over by Manuela, the woman who has brought them all together. Although these women are free from certain restrictions that once impeded them and their own mothers during the 36-year reign of Francisco Franco’s authoritarian regime, they are united by a disillusionment that matches the national tenor of the time; just three years before the film’s debut, Spain’s idealistic Socialist Workers’ Party lost power amid reports of corruption, a perpetuation of politics at its most traditional.
Manuela, though at times disabused of hope, remains the heart and anchor of All About My Mother, a heroine easy to love without judgment. And yet a glaring question mark hangs over her deeper desires, be they romantic, professional, or artistic, beyond the maternal realm. There is measured pride in Manuela’s voice as she speaks early on about her stint in regional theater, paving the way for her triumphant, one-night-only performance as Stella in Huma’s production, where she takes the stage for an incapacitated Nina. In just a snippet of a scene from Williams’s play, Manuela depicts one of the most heartrending Stellas that I’ve ever watched on stage or screen, wailing with agony as the character goes into sudden childbirth. She is sensational—and yet no future acting prospects are mentioned afterwards, akin to the impromptu flamenco concert of Cruz’s Raimunda in Volver, a flash of artistic energy never to be repeated. From the first scene to last, Manuela exists as mother—to Esteban, Rosa, and Rosa’s own child, named Esteban in memoriam; even the extract we witness of her Streetcar tour de force doesn’t stray far from the maternal.
Manuela’s heart may forever be a casket carrying the son whose framed photo she keeps in her purse and by her bed, whose name brings tears to her eyes, stopping her in her tracks, at just a fleeting mention. Only at the birth of Rosa’s son is this load lightened, giving Manuela a new child to bring up, another reason to persevere. But how much does this work satisfy her? I remain immeasurably moved by Manuela’s mission and the subtle but significant transformation that she undergoes over the course of All About My Mother. “Promise me you won’t hide anything from the child,” Rosa makes Manuela vow before her fatal delivery of a son who will neutralize his birthparents’ virus. It is a promise that Manuela keeps by first denying the wishes of Rosa’s priggish mother (Rosa Maria Sardà) and allowing a repentant, dying Lola to meet the second son she helped bring into this world and later fleeing back to Madrid with the baby, also named Esteban, to raise him on her own, away from his grandmother’s paranoia.
Almodóvar still keeps us at a distance from Manuela, but his film does not lose an ounce of its cathartic power because of human limitations. To love is, quite simply, not always to know directly. And perhaps to make art is not to authoritatively master one’s subjects, but to adore, explore, and ceaselessly inquire about the ones we love who are at once near and far, to be a fallible translator of lived experience rather than a keeper of knowledge. All About My Mother is a work of art that emanates from the gap that separates love and knowledge, the child from the mother who is far more than the sacrifices made on his behalf. Manuela’s submerged dreams remind us that so much of the self resides behind a locked door, the key withheld even from those closest to us.
It took us several days to pack up the apartment that my grandmother called home since 1959, where she raised four children, one of whom, my aunt Elisa, departed this earth almost five years before her. During one of these cleanup days, I came across a worn, maroon autograph book from my grandmother’s junior high school graduation in 1953. Tucked somewhere between the scattered messages from her classmates was a personal survey. My grandmother’s looping cursive was cruder than her eternally neat penmanship, though still familiar, but her answers were not. Her favorite book? All Quiet on the Western Front. Her favorite songs? The midcentury standards “I Believe” and “April in Portugal.” Next to the query of “College,” a simple “no.” And the space next to “Profession” had been left blank. Even so, her motto stood out: “He who only hopes is hopeless.”
To hold that book in my hand and read those answers felt like receiving a transmission from a bygone time, a glimpse at the clear-eyed adolescent my grandmother was right at the moment when practical concerns deprived her of choices and denied her the chance to dream bigger dreams for herself. I wonder now if she fostered deep regrets about any unfulfilled aspirations and if she may have ever allowed herself to share those regrets and aspirations with anyone. Or did she just throw a veil over them and carry on with the cooking and cleaning that sustained those around her? Only in her absence have I felt a surging curiosity about my grandmother and what more she might have wanted from this world, what disappointments she buried beneath the surface toughness that she was known to exude. It is a curiosity that I imagine Almodóvar feels about the women in his life, including his own mother, Francisca Caballero, who passed away in September of 1999, the same year that saw the debut of All About My Mother.
It is so easy to love those removed a generation or two from us without fully knowing or understanding them. Whenever I pass the street my grandmother lived on, located in a Brooklyn she might barely recognize today, I find myself reaching for the gravelly comfort of her voice in my head, wishing I had asked better, more interested questions for her to answer. I implore her memory to not fade away. In these moments, I am reminded of the harrowing moment in All About My Mother when Manuela rushes towards Esteban’s fallen body on the street, calling his name, his soul, back to earth. Her wailing voice is detached from her movements, as though following the subject of its cries as it passes into a place beyond the body’s reach, a place where knowledge ends but love survives.
To my grandmother.