All About My Mother earned the former enfant terrible of Spanish filmmaking, Pedro Almodžvar, the Best Director Award at Cannes, and the prestigious invitation to open the New York Film Festival. Dedicated to actresses who have played actresses (Gena Rowlands, Bette Davis, Romy Schneider), this deliciously overripe saga about a mother's devastating loss and salvation finds beauty and hope in women's inherent capacity to act, both onstage and off.

Pedro Almodžvar, who catapulted to fame in 1988 with his wittily stylized, sexy screwball comedy Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, returns with another gem. All About My Mother, which the Spanish filmmaker appropriately characterizes as a 'screwball drama,' explores the lives of 'extreme characters, beat up by chance.' Almodžvar takes risks few contemporary directors even consider, embracing a melodramatic story and wresting from it, through brilliant performances and dazzling visuals, pure drama. Evoking the work of Douglas Sirk and Nicholas Ray in its emotional intensity, saturated color and over-the-top plot, All About My Mother pays homage to women and actresses, and the ways in which they are one and the same.

Along the way, it also celebrates the resiliency of women, their bonds with their children and female friends, and the artists who have appreciated their strength and vulnerability, especially Tennessee Williams, whose A Streetcar Named Desire plays such a central role here, and Joseph L. Mankiewicz for All About Eve.

Early in the movie, after Ma˜uela (Cecilia Roth) returns from her nursing job, she and her son, Esteban (Eloy Azar"n), watch All About Eve on television. The clips offer the humorous spectacle of Bette Davis mouthing dubbed Spanish dialogue, and seeing the title mistranslated as Eve Unveiled, but, more importantly, Davis' dressing-room scenes will be mirrored in Cecilia's future. Esteban, who is writing a story about his mother, borrows the title All About My Mother (much like the filmmaker), and writes it down in his notebook. Almodovar intensifies the intimacy between mother and son by having Esteban ask Ma˜uela to read to him before he goes to sleep, like she did when he was a child. The book, however, Truman Capote's Music for Chameleons, which he requested for his 17th birthday, offers the somber reflection that 'when God hands you a gift, he also hands you a whip, and the whip is intended solely for self-flagellation.'

Esteban seems more than willing to suffer for his art, but he never gets the chance. The very next night, while seeking an autograph from Huma Rojo (Marisa Paredes), the actress who impressed him with her anguished performance as Blanche Dubois, he is killed by a careening car while his mother helplessly watches nearby. Ma˜uela, whose job at the hospital entailed enacting a hypothetical scene in which a widow must quickly decide whether to donate her husband's organs, finds herself playing the horrific scene for real. Cecilia travels outside Madrid to another hospital, where a stranger will inherit her son's young heart. As the transplant recipient leaves the hospital, Cecilia furtively watches, her eyes, like the camera's lens, focusing on his heart until the screen surrenders to black.

Fleeing Madrid, where she raised her son, Cecilia returns to Barcelona in search of Esteban's father. Reading her son's notebook, in which he writes of his longing to know his father, no matter who he is, in order to feel whole, Cecilia realizes her mistake in hiding Esteban from the truth. The boy died knowing only that his father played Stanley Kowalski to his mother's Stella in a local production of Streetcar.

Her husband, it turns out, was also named Esteban, but changed his name to Lola after procuring breast implants. Cecilia left for Madrid after discovering she was pregnant with his child. Informing Lola that he had a son who wished to know him would, Cecilia believes, fulfill her son's final wishes.

Despite the film's tragic, sensationalist events, Almodžvar remarkably avoids a dark tone from settling over the production. The plot keeps spinning, the palette stays vibrant, and colorful new characters enliven the narrative, especially Agrado (Antonia San Juan), a transvestite hooker with a heart of gold and a dizzy sense of humor. Cecilia saves her from a nasty customer while searching the streets for Lola, only to recognize Agrado as her old chum from her Barcelona days. The two seek 'honest' work from a beautiful, kind nun named Sister Rosa (Penelope Cruz), whose life, they discover, has also been marked by Lola.

The grande dame of theatre, Huma, reappears in the story after her production of Streetcar moves to Barcelona, and the four women entertain and nurture one another, playing a variety of roles in one another's lives, from mother to sister, daughter to friend, all of them relying on the kindness of strangers. Cecilia even gets an Eve Harrington break, taking over the role of Stella when Nina (Candela Pe˜a), the heroin-addicted actress (and Huma's contentious lover), is too dazed to perform. But unlike Eve, Cecilia holds no theatrical ambitions. This is All About My Mother, after all.

After nearly 20 years of filmmmaking, with 13 feature films to his credit (most recently The Flower of My Secret and the highly praised Live Flesh), Almodžvar is at the top of his wonderfully idiosyncratic form. Rich in compassion, humor and complexity, All About My Mother not only brings its central characters from darkness to light, it suggests a brighter future for the bedraggled art of cinema.

--Wendy Weinstein