FOCUS The Auteur and International Art Cinema

In All about my Mother, a woman (a single mother) working in Madrid sees her only son die on his 17th birthday as he runs to seek an actress's autograph. She makes an effort to reconcile herself to the disaster and to bring together some of the disparate and unfinished business of her life. She returns to her home town of Barcelona, at least in part to seek out the boy's father, a trans-vestite named Lola who does not know he has a child. So far we are in the realms of soap opera at its most melodramatic. However, Almodovar exhibits his usual mixture of flamboyance and humanity to develop a story of complexity and power.

Almodôvar's films are very personal (he writes as well as directs his movies). His flamboyance and moral relativism are so surprising as a product of Spanish cultural life under the regime of General Franco that a purist auteur/biographical position seems (almost) reasonable.

The young Almodovar was not artistically or temperamentally suited to provincial life in Franco's Spain. He gravitated to Madrid in 1968. Almodovar could not afford film school and in any event the film-making schools were closed in the early 1970s by Franco's government.

Almodovar found a job in the Spanish phone company and saved his salary to buy a Super 8 camera. From 1972 to 1978 he devoted himself to making short films with the help of his friends. The premières of those early films developed into events and were famous in the milieu of the Spanish counter-culture that developed as Francoism faded. Almodovar became the central figure of 'La Movida' - a brash popular cultural movement based in Madrid. Elements of the counter-culture have become the subject - and indeed stars - of his films.

His first feature film, Pepi, Luci, Bom and. the Other Girls (Pepi, Luci, Bom y otras chicas del montôn, 1980), was shot on 16 mm film and blown up to 35 mm for public release. The film was a breath of fresh air, not only in Spain - where Carlos Saura (e.g. with Cria

Cuervos, 1976) had shown film could still tell truths but in a rather understated way - but across Europe. Almodóvar's early films, including the existentially shocking Matador (1986), made him the darling of the 'art-house' cinema and exhibited the flowering of his authorial style. Almodóvar's themes - dangerous then and still liable to cause offence - are personal idiosyncrasy and the revealing of the sexual chaos that lies beneath 'normal' life. His style was and remains theatrical, yet firmly cinematic in its sheer visual energy and the ability to change pace apparently at will. However silly the plots and characterisation might become, all could be forgiven for his so ostentatiously exhibited belief that basically love and a little common humanity can conquer all. He is not immoral, he simply refuses to take moral stances against anything. Not to be against anything is either brave or foolish - especially in a Spain still emerging from the shadow of the strongly held differences that had led to a civil war. Almodóvar quickly proved himself to be a wise and brave fool.

In 1987 he and his brother Agustín Almodóvar established their own production company, El Deseo, and were responsible for the release of a worldwide hit with Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown (Mujeres al borde de un ataque de nervios, 1988). Until All about my Mother the film remained his best. It is arguable that for a decade Almodóvar veered into self-parody and lapses of even his (questionable) taste with Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! (Átame!, 1990) and High Heels (Tacones lejanos, 1991), as well as Kika (1993), which treats sexual assault as a subject of farce.

The auteur of excess returned to form with The Flower of my Secret (La flor de mi secreto, 1996) and Live Flesh (Carne trémula, 1997), where the material is stronger and able to take the weight of Almodóvar's flamboyance.

Having launched into his usual emotional roller-coaster in All about my Mother, Almodóvar sets the travails of his protagonists in his usual counter/subcultural milieu - for example, the mother (Manuela) seeks out her friend Agrado, who, like her ex-lover, is a transvestite. It is also typical of the director's writing style that small personal stories interweave into baroque patterns of coincidence and mutual illumination. Through Agrado, Manuela meets Rosa, a young nun bound for El Salvador, and becomes personal assistant to Huma Rojo, the stage actress her son admired. She helps Huma manage Nina, co-star and Huma's lover. Manuela also takes it upon herself to look after Rosa during a difficult pregnancy.

The film contains echoes of Gorky, Brecht and Beckett as well as Lorca. Its filmic points of reference are All about Eve (Mankiewicz, USA, 1950) and A Streetcar Named Desire (Kazan, USA, 1951). Mothers (and fathers) as well as 'the actors' live out the pain as well as the pleasures of love and friendship. Although much of the material is painful, the film itself is a celebration of the strength of women and of feminine traits - shown by women and some men. However histrionic Almodovar's style may be, All about my Mother is a celebration of real life, the theatre and cinema itself.

As the final (train) images of the film show, life is a journey -and no less worthwhile for that.

Some Things to Watch out for and Consider

• How is it possible that Pedro Almodovar - a product of Francoist Spain - could come to make such splendidly colourful and sexually complex films?

• All about my Mother seems to be a perfect candidate for newer approaches to thinking about film. In the twentieth century, theoretical positions - from structuralism to post-structuralism - tried desperately to keep up with the audience and spectator. Any contemporary discussion of such issues is liable to focus on questions of identity and has to take note of the work and influence of Michel Foucault. Foucault challenged the 'common-sense' view that individuals have a single self-contained identity or character. Watching Almodovar's films, particularly All about my Mother, is liable to raise these issues too.

• Almodovar's exploration - even celebration - of multilay-ered identity may lead the viewer to the ideas of Judith Butler. Butler prefers to see the possibility for a person to form and choose his or her own individual identity. For Butler - and surely for Almodovar - gender is a performance. This idea of identity as free-floating performance is one of the key ideas in 'queer theory', increasingly influential within film studies.

• The mass media are the primary means for images - alternative or otherwise - to be disseminated. It is worthwhile considering how an artist like Almodovar illuminates and contributes to the war of images that rages around us (if it does).

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