At first glance, Pedro Almodovar's All About My Mother seems uncharacteristically grim for a filmmaker with such a demonic sense of humor. Within 10 minutes, the heroine's 17-year-old son is hit and killed by a car, which propels her and the events of the film into motion. In the next 90 minutes, we meet an aging father suffering from Alzheimer's, an actress with a gruesome heroin habit, a prostitute constantly beaten by her customers, and two AIDS victims -- one of whom is a pregnant nun.
These may not sound like the makings of high camp, which is one of Almodovar's customary modes, nor of surreal farce, which is another. But the great Spanish director is nothing if not a cinematic alchemist. In Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, he transformed Madrid into a latter-day wonderland; and in High Heels, he deftly stirred homicide into the romantic competition between a vain actress and her TV-reporter daughter -- both to hilarious and edifying effect. This time, the Almodovar magic proves to be more powerful than ever. From the grief of one woman he has fashioned a meditation, often very funny, on the natural bond of all women and a dazzling homage to the roles they play -- onstage and in life.
One of Almodovar's great skills is addressing the most serious maladies of contemporary life without solemnity. In fact, he's openly playful as he stares down sexual ambiguity, tragic parental failure, social repression, even death. After burying her son, the heroine of Mother, a nurse named Manuela (Cecilia Roth), travels from Madrid to Barcelona to find the boy's mysterious father; in the course of her search we meet a typically Almodovarian cast of characters. They include Huma Rojo (Marisa Paredes) and Nina Cruz (Candela Pena), two troubled actresses who are playing Blanche and Stella DuBois in a touring production of A Streetcar Named Desire and trying to work out their own romance; the transvestite prostitute Agrado (Antonia San Juan), who Manuela and her husband knew before she fled to Madrid to raise their son; and the young nun Sister Rosa (Penelope Cruz), whose father can no longer recognize her, and whose mother doesn't want to. Amid the baroque twists and turns of Almodovar's plot, their roles are constantly shifting in a haze of emotion and artifice.
A "bride of Christ" becomes the surrogate daughter of a grieving mother. A former actress once more plays a part she essayed 20 years earlier -- the sister of a madwoman. Two former men now impersonate women. One of them, it turns out, is twice a father. The relationship of Manuela and her dead son, we learn, more closely resembled that of a sister and brother. Gay goes straight. Daughters become mothers, and mothers become daughters. Three generations of sons, all named Esteban, living and dead, comprise a bizarre family lineage.
Never mind how these complex relationships fit together. That they do is tribute to the filmmaker's suppleness and the surreal tilt of his mind. For his part, Almodovar calls his new film a "screwball drama," and for all its domestic complications and social permutations, that sounds about right. Certainly, the contrarian strains that have characterized Spanish artists from Dali to Gaudi to Buñuel -- anticlerical, poetic, comically subversive -- are all on display here. Generalissimo Franco is long dead, and the unfettered comedy of life bubbling up from the Spanish unconscious continues to be proudly liberationist, gloriously extreme, and achingly human. Almodovar devotees have long understood the way he has fused Buñuel with, say, John Waters: Consider his great 1985 farce What Have I Done to Deserve This?, an absurdist outpouring of post-Franco glee in which a frustrated housewife allays boredom by sniffing glue, selling her promiscuous daughter to a gay dentist, and committing murder -- and keeps us laughing throughout.
Almodovar's latest film may have a slightly darker, more naturalist tone than some of his previous works, but the seasoned renegade hasn't lost his edge. The man who once said that making films in conformist Spain made him feel "like an astronaut in King Arthur's court" is still the ruler of outer space.