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Mommy Dearest 

*All About My Mother (R)
Columbia Tri-Star

Although Pedro Almodovar's film homage to women and the virtues of motherliness won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Film of 1999, it never graced the screens of Colorado Springs theaters. All's the pity.

Almodovar, Spain's most commercially successful and internationally well-known contemporary director (Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!) uses the movie screen as a giant canvas for his brightly colored, affectionate exterior and interior landscape shots of Madrid and Barcelona. In All About My Mother, his most blatantly and successfully melodramatic film, surfaces are shiny and polished like hard candies -- a yellow and black taxi on the streets of Barcelona glistens in the sun; the interiors of apartments are painted in bright swirls of orange and yellow. I couldn't help thinking while watching it how great it would have looked on the big screen.

Nonetheless, it's worth watching on videotape for its excessive, meandering plot and wonderful female performances. Almodovar perennial Cecilia Roth, with her husky voice and earthy good looks, plays Manuela, a single mother whose beloved teenage son Esteban is killed early in the film. Attempting to work through her grief, Manuela sets off from Madrid for Barcelona and ventures into the territory of her past, a world populated by transsexuals, drag queens and theatrical divas. She accidentally befriends Sister Rosa (Penelope Cruz), a young pregnant nun who is infected with AIDS, and eventually becomes her full-time nurse and the replacement mother of her child, also named Esteban.

Thrown into the mix are several competing subplots involving the theater -- specifically Tennessee Williams' A Streetcar Named Desire -- but they are all merely excuses to throw together interesting female characters in moments of emotional vulnerability, lust, creativity, caring and solidarity.

Almodovar crosses sexual lines with more bravado than anyone working in film -- his work makes Priscilla Queen of the Desert and other such films look like cartoons. And in doing so, he is able to tenderly comment on the essence of femininity with exquisite precision. All About My Mother is dedicated to "all the people who want to be mothers," whether they were born with breasts or not.

Also central to this film is the concept of authenticity -- what makes us real? In what ways do we lose our authenticity by taking on roles assigned by society? The fabulous transsexual/prostitute/poet/drag queen who is Manuela's best friend delivers a monologue onstage that captures Almodovar's central intent and philosophy: "You are authentic the more you resemble what you dreamed you are."

All About My Mother is a campy two-hankie weepie graced with a roomful of outstanding actresses in fascinating female roles -- a rarity in cinema. The scenery is gorgeous, and the icing on the cake is you get to hear Blanche Dubois deliver her famous lines in Spanish -- another of the movie's tender themes -- "I have always counted on the kindness of strangers."

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