Film review: All About My Mother

All About My Mother

Please welcome our new Film Critic, Joanna Wagner, who lives in San Francisco, California.

By Joanna Wagner
LGBT Perspectives Film Critic

Suppose you took the movies All About Eve and A Streetcar Named Desire and blended them together with a story about a mother, her family and her queer friends; you would get Pedro Almodóvar’s Oscar-winning 1999 film, All About My Mother. It’s one of my all-time favourite movies and with the newfound  prominence of all things transgender, it’s definitely worth seeing.

This film appeals to me on several levels. The first is organ transplantation — I’ve had one. The mother and lead Manuela (Cecillia Roth) is a transplant coordinator at a hospital.

The second is gender transition from male to female. I’m a transgender woman. The film depicts the lives and adventures of two transgender women, one of whom has a large supporting role and another whose mostly ephemeral presence is central to Manuela’s life.

The third is Spain, its language and culture. These are important to my current and future life.

All About My Mother is set sometime in the 1980s. The AIDS crises is in full swing and treatments almost non-existent; the diagnosis was a death sentence. Two of the characters will face this and one has a near miss. These things are serious, but the film is infused with humour, some of it dark, some just funny — these are punctuated by moments of great sadness. You will both laugh and cry.

After work, Manuela returns home. She is the single mother of Estoban (Aloy Azurín), and they celebrate his 18th birthday with a trip to the theatre.

Estoban is a handsome young man who dreams of becoming a writer. Manuela has kept quiet about his father his entire life; now at manhood, Estoban wants to know the story. She decides to tell him, but his life is cut short in an auto accident. Manuela feels compelled to find her ex-husband and tell her of the death of the son she never knew. Manuela travels from Madrid to Barcelona in search of Lola  (Toni Cantó).

She soon meets up with their mutual friend, Agrado (Antonia San Juan), a trans woman hustling on the streets and together they begin the search that will lead them to the theatre and the streets of Barcelona. Along the way, they enlist the aid of a young nun, Hermana Rosa (Penélope Cruz).

A highlight for me is Agrado’s one-woman stage performance. She describes all of the work she’s had  done to become a “genuine woman..  More than her personal story, she’s talking about the things all women go through to meet a ridiculous standard of beauty.

In the current climate of transgender activism, I’m sure many will find the depiction of the transgender women as whores as perpetuating stereotypes. This film was made in 1999, and like it or not sex work was and continues to be an occupation common among transitioning women. These two women are complicated characters. Their occupation doesn’t define who they are. I’ve known women who have lived the grittier aspects of this story. Just because it may not be flattering doesn’t make it any less real. This is a wonderful story and I encourage everyone to see it. Streaming on Amazon.

 Film dedication

To Bette Davis, Gena Rowlands and Romy Schneider

To every actress who ever played another actress

To all the women who act , to all the men who act and become women

To everyone who wants to be a mother. To my mother.


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