Write a critical study of a recent Spanish or Latin American film or play that you have seen, and that has made a social or political impact in Spain. You should bring into your study criticism and reviews, both from the press and, where possible, from academic sources, and discuss the ways in which the film has been received and analysed, making comparisons with other films where appropriate.
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The 1999 film “Todo sobre mi madre” directed by Pedro Almodovar and starring Cecilia Roth, Marisa Paredes and Penelope Cruz was, to all extent and purposes, an absolute triumph. In 2000, it won an Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film, together with a further 46 film awards, including a BAFTA for Best Film not in the English Language and a Critics Choice Award for a Best Foreign-Language Film. It was nominated in a further 31 categories.
The film’s plot-line is totally original and never once bores the viewer. The film’s main character is Manuela, an organ transplant coordinator whose involvement in amateur theatre in her youth is surprisingly useful in her current occupation: she stars in role playing videos produced by her hospital, for use as learning aides for junior doctors, as sensitivity training for situations where requests must be made to bereaved relatives for organ donation. Manuela normally plays the role of the bereaved relative – a widow, mother, daughter or sister.
In her personal life, Manuela, a single parent, has a 17 year old son, Esteban, who is about to become eighteen. Esteban is writing an essay entitled “Todo sobre mi madre” “All about my mother” and in undertaking this project, one of his main purposes is to learn about his father, whose identity Manuela has always kept secret. However, even though he asks her to tell him about his father as a birthday present, Manuela does not feel the time is right and she refuses.
Esteban’s birthday present is tickets to the production of ‘A Streetcar named Desire’, starring the famous actress Huma Rojo, of whom Esteban is a great fan. That evening, when Esteban sees Huma outside the Madrid theatre, he rushes to get her autograph, but she doesn’t see him and she dives into a taxi. Esteban is left in the middle of a dark road in the pouring rain, when he is hit by a car. Unfortunately, the car accident proves fatal.
In a dark ironic twist, once the doctors approach Manuela to tell her that her son is dead, she is, in reality, forced into the role she has acted so often in the past; that of the mother grieving for her dead child. As fitting with her professional role, Manuela agrees for her son’s organs to be donated.
Following Esteban’s death, Manuela leaves Madrid and returns to Barcelona, where she once worked as a prostitute and where Esteban was conceived. Manuela feels the need to locate Esteban’s father – as she did not grant Esteban his last wish, she wants to meet Esteban’s father to tell him about his son. Once she gets to Barcelona, Manuela contacts an old friend of hers; Agrado, a transsexual prostitute.
She then learns that her ex-husband, also called Esteban, has become a transvestite and a prostitute and is now known by the name ‘Lola’. Manuela learns that Lola has stolen money from Agrado and, after a commencing a sexual relationship with Sister Rosa, a young and beautiful young nun, has left her pregnant and HIV positive. Manuela takes on a caring, motherly role in respect of both these characters.
She also finds a job in sync with tragic loss of her son – as a personal assistant to Huma Rojo. Huma Rojo has a tempestuous relationship with Nina, her co-star in ‘A Streetcar Named Desire’. Nina is volatile and drug addicted and when she is incapable of playing her role in the play, Manuela steps in to take on the role of Stella. Clearly, there are resonances between Stella, the character in the Tennessee William’s play and Manuela -both have grappled with the consequences of a sexual relationship with an unsuitable, and ultimately undesirable, partner.
However, Agrado has to take over Manuela’s duties as personal assistant as Rosa’s pregnancy develops and she becomes increasingly unwell. Before dying of AIDS, Rosa gives birth to a baby boy, who, like his father and late half brother, is also named Esteban. Manuela finally comes face to face with Lola at Rosa’s funeral, where she takes the opportunity to tell him about their son and his untimely death. It transpires that Lola, too, is approaching death – the HIV virus has also developed into AIDS.
Manuela adopts baby Esteban and moves in with Rosa’s parents. However, this living situation is not ideal, as Rosa’s mother finds it difficult to accept that Lola is baby Esteban’s father and she is scared that she will be infected with the HIV virus from being in close contact with the baby. So Manuela takes baby Esteban and returns to Madrid, leaving goodbye letters for Huma and Agrado, in the same way she did 18 years earlier, when she fled from Barcelona pregnant with her son.
The concluding scenes of the film flash forward two years. Manuela has returned to Barcelona to attend an AIDS Convention. She meets Agrado and Huma, who now work together in a theatre production. Nina, Huma’s former lover, left Huma to return to her home town, where she got married and started a family. However, the most heartwarming aspect of this glimpse into Manuela’s future is the fact that, miraculously, baby Esteban did not contract the HIV virus from Rosa and is now a healthy child. The viewer learns that Manuela has decided to stay in Barcelona, where she and Esteban will once again live with Rosa’s parents.
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It is hardly surprising that, having achieved such a high level of commercial success and critical acclaim, that most of the critique on this film is couched in glowing terms. According to Philip French, writing for The Guardian in 1999, ‘Todo sobre mi madre’ was Almodovar’s “finest film to date”. He continues to describe the film as follows:
“This funny, sad and emotionally generous movie is about love, parenthood, friendship and loyalty, about life, art and acting roles, about re-creating oneself according to one’s dreams, and about what, if anything is truly natural. All the performances are excellent and the picture is immaculately designed in a manner recalling Douglas Sirk’s work at Universal in the Fifties.”
Undertaking a less general and more academic analysis of the film, Ryan Prout focuses on the organ transplant theme which is prevalent at the start of the storyline. According to Prout, this aspect of the film is essentially Spanish, taking into account the double edged sword constituted by the extremely high road traffic accident rate in Spain and its accompanying high level of organ donor transplant operations:
“Perhaps it is when it emphasizes the dependence of a successful transplant programme on the supply of suitable organs from tragic deaths like Estéban’s that Todo sobre mi madre is most obviously a Spanish film and its nation is most clearly somatized. Because, while in the last ten years Spain has been able to welcome a vastly improved transplant success rate, it has not seen a corresponding decline in road traffic deaths. The country has some of the best figures for human transplant surgery in Europe and some of the community’s worst figures for deaths on the roads. The peculiarly Spanish dilemma which Todo sobre mi madre faces is that these two circumstances are inseparable. Inasmuch as Todo sobre mi madre revolves around these interstices of life and death it is also all about Spain.”
Certainly, as the film is all about Spain, it seeks to challenge much of the rigid stereotypes relating to family, sexuality, and gender identities that were prevalent in Spanish macho culture throughout the 1980s and 1990s. The concept of the transsexual, present in the films via the characterization of both Agrado and Lola, highlights the possibility of alternate gender identities: though heterosexual and male, Agrado and Lola have a clearly defined feminine sexual identity. In a similar way, Huma grapples with salient male characteristics, which give her a rather ambiguous, androgynous gender identity.
According to Thompson, all of Almodovar’s films, including ‘Todo sobre mi madre’ “constitute a cultural critique”. Almodovar aims to reveal the array of true human diversity in all its reality and beauty, aiming to liberate those who do not conform to the norms imposed by social convention and cultural traditions. This is certainly true in ‘Todo sobre mi madre’. Almodovar’s less traditional characters are full of compassion and are devoid of judgment towards others. Indeed, the little unit composed of Manuela, Agrado and Rosa exemplifies some of the most laudable qualities of family life, whereas the traditional family unit shown to the viewer, in the relationship between Rosa’s parents and their attitudes towards their daughter and grandson, are characterized by hypocrisy, disdain and judgment towards others.
In attempting to push the boundaries of gender stereotypes and identities acceptable to the viewing public, Almodovar cites Truman Capote, Tennessee Williams and Federico Garcia Lorca as his main influences when writing the screenplay for the film. Evidently, all the main inspirational contributions to the screenplay emanate from gay writers and Almodovar himself, is of course, a gay film writer and director.
These influences are discussed by Peter Bradshaw in his review of the film for The Guardian newspaper – indeed, one of the few negative critiques available on ‘Todo sobre mi madre’. According to Peter Bradshaw, this film afforded Almodovar “the occasion for an exploration of a gay sensibility and a popular gay aesthetic”. However, he feels that this potential was not realized within the movie, which does not specifically dramatise either heterosexual or homosexual love. He is especially confounded by the inclusion of the transsexual characters, which he feels “ironise and alienate the real emotional issues raised in this film”. He suggests that, in creating these characters, Almodovar is trying, in a metaphorical sense, to dramatise women’s desire to escape traditional sexual identities, or to reveal women’s longing to interact with men within a relationship dynamic free of socio-sexual tension. In any event, he concludes that neither of these themes are sufficiently realized within the film.
Notwithstanding the gay influences which informed the creation of the screenplay, it is indisputable that the central tenet of this film is the portrayal of the bonds of sisterhood and friendship that endure between the female characters and their sustaining, healing power. The ability of a woman to love and nurture, both in her expression of maternal love and in her friendships, is clearly revealed in Manuela’s relationships with both her biological and adoptive sons, as well as in her friendships with Agrado and Huma. This is perhaps one of the main reasons for this film’s outstanding success – the female reality, with its ever present maternal attributes, is a thematic concern with which every single viewer is able to identify.
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