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Pedro Almod¢var's wonderful "All About My Mother" explores Woman in her infinite variety.

"Mother" Superior

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When Spanish director Pedro Almod¢var coyly describes "All About My Mother" as a "screwball drama," he means it. Life has rarely imitated art as dramatically or as entertainingly as it does here. Offering no less than six terrific actresses, Almod¢var's main characters are many things, including an actress, an artist, a nun, an organ-donor coordinator and a junkie. Thrown in for emotional spice are also a baby boy, a beautiful teen-age boy and a couple of transvestite prostitutes. Tied together in Almod¢var's wacky trademark fashion, these characters exist on-screen with a vitality and vividness not often seen in mainstream American movies.

When we meet Almod¢var's heroine, Manuela (the breathtaking Cecilia Roth), she and teen-age son Esteban (Eloy Azorin) are watching "All About Eve," Joseph Mankiewicz's classic about an aging star who's upstaged by her assistant. That's no coincidence, for the film inspires Almod¢var's work well beyond the similar titles.

For his 17th birthday, Esteban has asked to see his mother at work. While she normally toils as a hospital organ-donor coordinator, Manuela has a part in an organ-donor training film. Manuela also takes Esteban to a performance of "A Streetcar Named Desire," where she makes a confession about Esteban's father, whom the child has never seen.

It seems that years ago the two played Stella and Stanley in an amateur production of Tennessee Williams' classic. Esteban is intrigued and wants to know more about his father. Manuela reluctantly agrees, but before she can tell him what he wants to know, Esteban is cut down by a speeding car while he's racing to get the autograph of Huma Rojo (Marisa Paredes), the show's well-known Blanche Dubois.

After she's caught stalking the man who receives Esteban's heart, the emotionally crushed Manuela heads off to Barcelona to track down her dead son's father. In pure Almod¢var whimsy, he is also a she, a transvestite prostitute named Lola with a drug habit.

Although she's stepped into a demimonde of which she knows little, the bereft Manuela finds her maternal instincts kicking back in. Soon she's taking care of Agrado (the hilarious Antonia San Cruz), a transsexual Lola ripped off; Rosa (Penélope Cruz), a young nun with her own surprising link to Lola; and the nun's neurotic mother (Rosa Maria Sarda), who's having trouble coping with her senile husband. Things really heat up when Huma Rojo's road show "Streetcar" hits Barcelona. Manuela hooks up with Rojo, who's romantically hooked on Nina (Candela Pena), the drug-addicted young actress playing Stella. Manuela takes a job with aging diva Rojo, and another tie to "All About Eve" is established.

Almod¢var's plot takes a few more twists and turns as the six women's lives crisscross each other's and become hilariously and heartbreakingly entangled. Before it's over, Almod¢var forces each of his actresses to play roles that lesser talents couldn't begin to handle. Taken as a group or as individual performances, these women are incredible.

In the end, Almod¢var ties all these odd story lines together into a sweet, satisfying, life-affirming ending. All about divas, history and histrionics, the engaging "All About My Mother" also deals with betrayal and reconciliation. His most mature and assured movie to date, Almod¢var's "All About My Mother" will have your head spinning and heart aching. In Spanish, with subtitles.

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