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Women surviving a nervous breakdown

Pedro Almodovar, who broke through to the American audience with Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, revels in the emotional survival skills of females in this most recent film.

Pedro Almodovar loves women in a way that American filmmakers rarely display anymore. All About My Mother is the most mature valentine yet from this former bad boy of Spanish cinema, now more concerned with developing subplots than shocks.

The movie preserves the garish color clashes and kinky motivations of Almodovar's earlier films that often pushed modern cinema into daring territory. Yet, All About My Mother is also faintly nostalgic with its melodramatic excesses. Bette Davis might have played the title role 60 years ago, an idea Almodovar nourishes with ideas _ even the film's title _ lifted from All About Eve.

Instead, the juicy role of Manuela goes to Cecilia Roth, whose pain and resiliency as a single mother grieving for her dead son are always grounded in realism Almodovar rejected before. Manuela works for an organ donation agency, and one of the delicious touches of the film is how frequently she gives away pieces of her heart to others. With her son gone, all that nurture must be released somewhere.

Esteban was killed on his 17th birthday, hit by a car while pursuing an autograph from his favorite actor, Huma Rojo (Marisa Paredes). Manuela never told her son anything about his father. Regret compels her to rediscover her former lover for herself. Along the way, she ingratiates herself backstage with Huma and her junkie lover, then meets a pregnant nun (Penelope Cruz) and a transgendered hooker named Agrado (Antonia San Juan) with clues to the father's whereabouts.

All About My Mother becomes a touching display of sisterly support, despite the outrageous demeanors of these women we learn to care deeply about. That alone sets the film apart from Almodovar's equally well-intended and easily misinterpreted earlier works, summed up by the title of his 1988 U.S. breakthrough, Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown. Some viewers were repelled by their surface victimization. Admirers detected the empathy underneath.

Women are stripped bare in Almodovar's films, and not necessarily of their clothes. His female characters practically burst with life and its emotional extremes, occasionally nudging psychosis. Yet, such measured craziness never insults, or serves as an alibi. Whatever doesn't kill Almodovar's heroines makes them stronger, more beautiful. His women aren't placed on a pedestal as much as they are finally allowed to stand on their own two feet.

The more subdued anguish and parody of All About My Mother makes Almodovar's affection clearer than ever. Even in her most pitiful moments, Manuela's maternal obsession seems noble. The backdrop staging of A Streetcar Named Desire uses two other blemished souls _ Blanche DuBois and Stella Kowalski _ to underscore the brittle relationship between the mother and Huma. They become mutual crutches, delicately laid aside when the healing is complete.

A strong sense of humanity also is evident in the film's offbeat characters. The nun's pregnancy becomes another surrogate opportunity for Manuela's maternal spirit. Agrado's flamboyance could be just another shocking distraction, except for one remarkable scene when the prostitute improvises a monologue about her surgical alterations, capped by a beautiful moral: "You are more authentic the more you resemble what you dreamed you are."

Almodovar dreams of making great films about women on the verge of something better than breakdowns. All About My Mother is the filmmaker's most authentic attempt yet, with its lollipop glow and bittersweet taste, and a cast of women inspired by such sincere consideration.

MOVIE REVIEW

All About My Mother

Grade: A

Director: Pedro Almodovar

Cast: Cecilia Roth, Marisa Paredes, Penelope Cruz, Antonia San Juan

Screenplay: Pedro Almodovar

Rating: R; sexual situations, nudity, profanity

Running time: 104 min.

Now playing: Tampa Theatre and Beach Theater

Up next:TODAY

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