"You are more authentic the more you resemble what you dream you are," a woman with a penis says somewhere in Pedro Almodóvar's screwball dramedy All About My Mother. Authenticity is much on this movie's mind, which glides effortlessly from machismo to feminismo, eros to thanatos, whores to madonnas--all the cultural stereotypes of Spanish culture. Almodóvar, who spent the first part of his career giddily dancing on Generalísimo Franco's grave, has calmed down (matured?) in his recent work, beginning with The Flower of My Secret and continuing with Live Flesh, but he remains utterly dedicated to the idea of our inventing our lives any way we see fit. In All About My Mother, there's not one but two transsexuals, a pregnant nun and a lesbian junkie, and the whole thing might start to seem like a Fellini circus on hormone therapy if Almodóvar weren't so deft at wrenching art from artifice. The guy loves actresses, especially those playing actresses. Bette Davis in All About Eve, for example. Or Vivien Leigh in A Streetcar Named Desire, for no one was more of an actress than Blanche DuBois. In a world still run by men, all women are actresses, Almodóvar seems to be saying, but that doesn't mean they have to succumb to the kindness of strangers, as Blanche did, or knock each other off the stage, as Eve Harrington did to Margo Channing in All About Eve. An object lesson in female solidarity, All About My Mother features Cecilia Roth as Manuela, a single mom who loses her teenage son in a car accident and then tries to put the bits and pieces of her life back together by tracking down the kid's long-gone father. Or should I say mother? Lola (Toni Cantó), who doesn't appear until late in the movie, is at least halfway through a sex change; and, as Manuela puts it, "he's got the worst of a man and the worst of a woman." Still, he/she's the key to Manuela's making it through the Crying Game of her grief. For the first time, Almodóvar has set a movie in the Catalan capital of Barcelona, home of the famous Sagrada Familia, Antoni Gaudí's fishbowl castle of a church. And while waiting for Lola to show up, Manuela puts together a Holy Family of her own: the pregnant nun, the lesbian junkie and the lesbian junkie's older lover, a theatrical grand dame who's touring Spain as Blanche in Streetcar. Manuela, who's been appointed the actress' personal assistant (à la Eve Harrington), takes the role of Stella one night, but nothing comes of it. Instead, she hands over her duties to her old friend Agrado (Antonia San Juan), who represents the heart and soul of Almodóvar's whole artistic enterprise--life as one long, drunken gender-bender. Explaining how she came by her name, Agrado, who spends most of her time hustling johns along Barcelona's notorious Vía Litúrgica, says, "I've always tried to make life...agreeable to others." In other words, she's the kind stranger that others depend on.
And the fact that she, too, has a penis? All the more reason to admire her for faking it like a woman and taking it like a man.