STARRING: CECILIA ROTH, MARISA PAREDES, CANDELA PEnA. 94 MINS
"A film by Almodovar", the credits announce, as if the Spanish director has now entered that rarefied atmosphere of celebrity wherein artists are known only by their surname, like Cervantes or Picasso. For Pedro's sake - the guy's not even 50 and already he wants single-name recognition. But then Pedro Almodovar has never been the shy, retiring sort. Having blazed a trail in the early Eighties as a sexual provocateur out to exploit the new liberties of post-Franco Spain, Almodovar consolidated his reputation in Europe and America with the stylised erotic farce of Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown (1989), which prompted Pauline Kael to call him "the most original pop writer-director of the Eighties - Godard with a human face". David Thomson, in his Biographical Dictionary, saluted him as "satiric yet generous and free from moralising". Quite something, this Almodovar.
All of which made me wonder why I couldn't stand his movies. Dutifully, I trooped through one after another - Law of Desire, Women on the Verge, Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!, High Heels, Kika - and still couldn't fathom what all the fuss was about. What others acclaimed as prankish and sexy seemed to me just overheated and boring. In memory, their campy plots and quirky ensembles of drag queens, transsexuals and hysterical actresses became indistinguishable from one other; and while it may have styled itself as comedy, I never felt remotely inclined to laugh.
Lately, however, the Almodovar style has been changing. The focus on a single character - a romantic novelist in her forties, played by Marisa Paredes - rendered The Flower of My Secret (1995) an intriguing essay in personal and professional isolation, while Live Flesh (1998) developed his preoccupation with chance into a disconcerting drama of obsession and revenge. These last two have, to some extent, prepared the way for All About My Mother, a surprisingly decorous rumination on grief, maternal love and the dynamics of stage acting. It's the closest Almodovar has come to straight drama, if a film populated by transvestite hookers and husbands can indeed be called straight.
The film's title nods to All About Eve, the great film about the stage that gave both Bette Davis and George Sanders their finest hours. Single mother Manuela (Cecilia Roth) has promised to tell her 17-year-old son Esteban all about his absent father, but on the night that they go to see a production of A Streetcar Named Desire, Esteban is killed in a road accident. In her grief, she comes to learn the bitter truth of a line of Truman Capote's she lately quoted: "When God hands you a gift, he also hands you a whip; and the whip is solely intended for self-flagellation." In previous Almodovar films one might have expected a literal demonstration, but here it's the starting-point of a mother's journey into her past.
Manuela heads for Barcelona in search of her estranged husband, who turns out to be a real bad penny, having robbed her transvestite friend La Agrado (Antonia San Juan) and impregnated another friend, Sister Rosa (Penelope Cruz), who is now HIV positive. What's more, this egregious spouse now trades as a prostitute under the name Lola. Manuela suddenly finds herself playing the role of surrogate mother, not only to these two but to grande dame actress Huma (Marisa Paredes) and her junkie girlfriend.
I know, I know. It all sounds so very Almodovarean, does it not? Tangled webs, polymorphous perversity and not much fun: the same old ingredients. The extravagant interiors are in evidence, too, a medley of hot acrylic colours - scarlet topcoats, turquoise cupboards, burnt orange sofas - to complement the vivid emotional turmoil.
Yet there's a difference, and it's crucially one of tone. Where Almodovar would previously have made merry with this cat's-cradle of alliances, the overriding element now is compassion. Gone is the absurdity of old, to be replaced by emotional engagement and dramatic gravitas. Farce is no longer the engine but character, expressed through a quartet of contrasting performances - Marisa Paredes, as striking and angular as one of Picasso's Demoiselles; the meltingly beautiful Penelope Cruz, in whose liquid eyes a wise man might discern the pull of destiny and devote his life to making her happy; and, as the wild card, Antonia San Juan's irreverent wise-cracking keeps the movie light on its feet. Presiding over them all is the marvellous Cecilia Roth, whose sympathy and resourcefulness are the rock on which Almodovar founds this moving testament to motherhood.
The scene in which Manuela finally encounters her errant husband could have been turned into melodramatic trash. Instead, the director invests it with a tragic intensity: "Lola has the worst of a man, and the worst of a woman," Manuela observes, yet for all his hatefulness, she can't help but reach out to him. In a film notable for celebrating mothers as a source of renewal, the invisibility of fathers becomes very pointed, whether he's a fugitive from responsibility or simply a senile dodderer like Rosa's father, who can recognise his dog but not his daughter.
In switching from action-centred comedy to agent-centred drama, Alomodovar's film-making has made a remarkable leap, yet he has effected this without abandoning his outlandish cast of deviants and drama queens. It would be interesting to see how he might fare outside the familiar confines of Hispanic bohemia, whether the possibilities of another milieu broaden his range. For now, All About My Mother is cheering evidence of a film- maker overhauling his repertoire and producing something of which I had never thought him capable: a film of sorrowful and affecting humanity.