"All About My Mother" begins with the death of an innocent 17-year-old boy, whose naive plans for the future are squashed by cruel reality before they can even begin to unfold. Before the film is over, we're introduced to a parade of damaged, brave survivors, including a transvestite hooker, a couple of lesbian thespians and a pregnant, HIV-positive nun.
But Pedro Almodóvar -- the celebrated Spanish director of the zany sex romp "Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown" and the dark, disturbing comedy "Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!" -- hasn't turned in a doom-and-gloom freak show. Dedicating his movie to actresses who have played actresses, the filmmaker clearly loves women -- and, incidentally, the men who wish to emulate them. Here, he casts an affectionate gaze on a group of females and females-in-waiting who find strength in their diversity and shared adversity.
The spiritual quest begins when Manuela (Cecilia Roth), a grieving nurse, glances at the journal that's been left behind by her recently killed son, Esteban (Eloy Azarí'n). His final stated desire -- to learn about the father he never had a chance to meet -- inspires Manuela to leave Madrid in search of her abandoned mate. Her first stop is a Barcelona locale called the Field, where provocatively dressed (and undressed) prostitutes meander through a constantly revolving circle of cars driven by potential clients. The seamy, surreal set piece is downright Fellini-esque.
In the first of several convenient coincidences, Manuela runs into an old family friend: a boisterous, cross-dressing prostitute named Agrado (Antonia San Juan). Her new social circle grows to include the wide-eyed Sister Rosa (Penélope Cruz), a young woman of the cloth who has her own stories to tell about Esteban's father; Huma Rojo (Marisa Paredes), a famous actress starring as Blanche Dubois in a local production of "A Streetcar Named Desire"; and Nina (Candela Peña), Huma's dope-addicted girlfriend and co-star. Manuela soon becomes Nina's understudy, and one night gets her chance to play Stella. The nature of family, Almodóvar posits, hinges entirely on one's own circumstances.
The cancellation of one of the play's evening performances leads to the funniest, most poignant sequence in the film. Called on to announce the bad news to a restless audience, the brassy, sassy Agrado uses the occasion to tell the story of her life, complete with details of the surgeries and silicone infusions that transformed the he into a she. "It cost me a lot to be authentic," she says. "I've paid my dues to be who I am today. Have you?"
Wild, bright colors and garish design patterns -- particularly after the narrative moves from the drably photographed Madrid to Barcelona -- provide the backdrop for this alternately amusing and heart-wrenching tale of sisterly survival. Bizarre plot twists, an Almodóvar specialty, also figure into the narrative, as do the bittersweet lessons taught by Tennessee Williams' stage classic. The combination adds up to the wittiest, most sophisticated outing yet from a seasoned talent whose career may just be beginning to peak.