Melodrama isn’t as chic as it used to be. During the peak of its cultural relevance in the 1940s and ‘50s, melodramas were among the first slew of films to stealthily comment on major social issues under the guise of mainstream entertainment.
Pedro Almodóvar’s All About My Mother (1999), now finally available on Blu-ray thanks to a stellar new reissue from Criterion, is a postmodern commentary on melodramas while also being a prime example of one.
Mother’s plot contains enough preposterous coincidences, devastating tragedies and stirring monologues to fill two or three Douglas Sirk films, but its wonderful cast of characters are drawn with a fastidious attention to detail and the problems they face are mired in far more complex issues than early melodramas, including sexuality, gender, AIDS and poverty. Instead of centering on forlorn housewives and square-jawed males formerly common in the genre, the Spanish cast here embodies an ensemble of characters you’re unlikely to find anywhere else: transgender sex workers, sympathetic nuns, troubled actresses and drug addicts. However, this isn’t a John Waters-style parody; the performers and dialogue ground the absurd plot devices into something that feels real. We believe the pain and longing of these characters because we can read it on their faces, feel it in their pauses.
The cast is across-the-board phenomenal, but the standout is Cecilia Roth as Manuela, a grieving woman in search of her deceased son’s father — who now lives life as a woman named Lola and prostitutes herself on the streets of Barcelona. Early on, Manuela’s search leads her to a desolate lot where sex workers converge. In a sweeping overhead shot, cars encircle these women as they’re picked up and dropped off by clients. Along with the swooning score, this sequence is borderline surreal; whereas some filmmakers might have tried to emphasize the grime and hopelessness of the situation, Almodóvar films it as if we’re being immersed into a fantastical world. This imagery more resembles surrealist directors like Federico Fellini than melodrama masters like Sirk, and Criterion’s 2K transfer renders the cinematography’s vibrant colors more mesmerizing than ever.
Almodóvar fills Mother with plenty of meta references to staples of American drama such as All About Eve (which is playing on a television set in the opening scene) to A Streetcar Named Desire. The heightened use of genre tropes adds a further sense of self-awareness, yet one doesn’t need to have a PhD in film studies to enjoy this movie. It’s a deeply affecting story of broken people searching for connection and meaning, and occasionally finding them. When film enthusiasts talk about the vast array of great films to come out during 1999, All About My Mother deserves recognition alongside any of them.
Given this is a Criterion release, the Blu-ray / DVD extras are as stacked and comprehensive as one could expect. A 2012 documentary features talking heads from just about everyone you’d hope, including Penélope Cruz, who was early in her career when she played Rosa in Mother and to this day remains an Almodóvar regular. The remastered visuals and audio track are the reissue’s strongest sell, and those watching it for the first time would be hard-pressed to find a better introduction to the scorching reds and pastel blues that make up the movie’s eye-popping color scheme.