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Reviews » Blu-ray Reviews » All About My Mother (Blu-ray)
All About My Mother (Blu-ray)
The Criterion Collection // R // January 28, 2020 // Region A
List Price: $27.99 [Buy now and save at Amazon]
Review by Stuart Galbraith IV | posted February 11, 2020 | E-mail the Author
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Spanish filmmaker Pedro Almodóvar's All About My Mother (Todo sobre mi madre, 1999) is uniquely superb, by turns gut-wrenching, wickedly funny at times, revelatory in its humanism, shockingly frank yet nonjudgmental about myriad subjects mainstream Hollywood movies would never, ever touch so honestly: transsexualism, drug use, pregnant nuns, prostitution, AIDS. Sumptuously designed and photographed, with a half-dozen unforgettable characters, it remains one of Almodóvar's best films to date, maybe his best overall.

As with other Almodóvar pictures, All About My Mother is best experienced viewed cold, with no advance knowledge of its story. I've you've not seen it, I recommend a blind-buy now to avoid Spoilers. You won't regret it.

Forty-ish Manuela (Argentine actress Cecilia Roth) is a nurse supervising organ transplant coordination at a Madrid hospital. (Her duties include role-playing the part of a grieving parent in an instructional video.) A single mother, she enjoys a close relationship with Esteban (Eloy Azorín), her teenage son, who dreams of becoming a writer. On his seventeenth birthday, she takes him to a performance of A Streetcar Named Desire, a play Manuela had herself appeared in as an amateur actress years before (playing Stella), and in fact where she had met Esteban's long-out-of-the-picture father, then playing Stanley Kowalski.

After the performance Esteban is anxious to meet the star of the show, Huma Rojo (Marisa Paredes), whom he idolizes, despite the torrential downpour that follows the performance. Chasing after her car, Esteban is struck and killed by a second car. At her hospital, she plays the grieving mother for real. Inconsolable, Manuela eventually quits her job and moves to Barcelona, hoping to find Esteban's promiscuous father, now an equally promiscuous transgendered woman named Lola.

She locates Agrado (Antonia San Juan), a sassy but supportive transgender prostitute who helps Manuela get settled and who introduces her to Rosa (Penélope Cruz), a young nun at a clinic for battered sex workers. Later, circumstances land Manuela a job as needy diva Huma's assistant, she unaware of Manuela's personal tragedy.

Drawn to Manuela's nonjudgmental, nurturing nature, Rosa goes to her for help. The young nun is not only pregnant, but the father is the elusive Lola, the father of Manuela's dead son. Worse, Rosa's pre-natal exams reveal that she's HIV-positive with life-threatening hypertension.

Almodóvar's deeply moving dedication at the end encapsulates the film's theme: "To all actresses who have played actresses. To all women who act. To men who act and become women. To all the people who want to be mothers. To my mother." And that's precisely what All About My Mother is. Having devoted herself so completely to her son, Manuela's life seems to lose all its meaning with his untimely, grossly unfair death. Her acceptance of Agrado, of Rosa, and even Huma, whose self-involved nature, fretting over her drug-addicted lesbian lover (Candela Peña), inadvertently contributes to Esteban's death, is almost saintly. She mothers the temperamental actress, she rescues Agrado from a violent John like a lioness looking after its cubs and, ultimately, becomes a surrogate mother for Rosa because the fallen novice fears her own conservative mother (Rosa Maria Sardà) will reject her.

This final bond moves the story and characters into even more unexpected but deeply-felt territory, pushing All About My Mother into genuine greatness. Ultimately, it's a film about empathy, shared compassion and understanding among those living at the outer edges of society. And, despite all its tragedy, All About My Mother is in the end a movie full of tremendous warmth and, indeed, hope, that amid all the harshness and cruelty and lack of understanding there still exist selfless, resilient, life-affirming mothers like Manuela. Her innate goodness radiates through her unimaginable loss, and her compassion toward Huma, Rosa, and even Rosa's less understanding mother in turn makes them richer, better people.

And for all its immense dramatic weight, All About My Mother is also playful and most entertaining. So many directors today reference older movies, but precious few integrate these references as ingeniously as Almodóvar's brilliant screenplay does. Besides Streetcar, whose characters and plot parallel those in Almodóvar's film, the movie likewise incorporates All About Eve, Douglas Sirk films, etc., in ways that are recognizable but which always serve a purpose. The performances across the board are outstanding, but Cecilia Roth's is peerless, with so much unstated emotion conveyed through her expressive eyes and delicate features.

Video & Audio

Criterion's new Blu-ray of All About My Mother utilizes a 2K scan of the original (2.35:1 ‘scope) 35mm negative and the results suggest a brand-new movie. The original 5.1 surround mix, very good, has been remastered as well, from a 35mm magnetic track. The English subtitles are excellent and the disc is Region "A" encoded.

Extra Features

Supplements include several hours of supplements, mostly long-form documentaries with the cast and crew. They include a 52-minute documentary from 2012; a 1999 television documentary; and a 48-minute post-screening Q&A from 2019. Despite some repeated anecdotes and observations, all three are valuable and worthwhile. The excellent booklet includes an essay by Emma Wilson, an interview with Almodóvar, and a reprint of a letter the director wrote to a Spanish newspaper following his own mother's death in 1999.

Parting Thoughts

One of the great films of the 1990s, a must-see, All About My Mother is a DVD Talk Collector's Series title.


Stuart Galbraith IV is the Kyoto-based film historian currently restoring a 200-year-old Japanese farmhouse.

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