Tuesday, July 28, 2009

All About My Mother (Todo Sobre Mi Madre) -- authenticity and acceptance

Director: Pedro Almodóvar, 1999.

As an openly gay film-maker, Spanish director Almodóvar creates provocative and colorful movies. All About My Mother is no exception and is centered around characters that might be offensive to some: lesbians, transsexuals, prostitutes and a pregnant nun. Yet, his film is a compassionate melodrama that depicts these characters as real people experiencing love and grief, acceptance and rejection.

Women dominate Almodóvar's films, unlike any produced in Hollywood. In his later film, the terrific Talk to Her, the shadows of the two comatose women cover the film and eclipse the two male leads. The silence of the women shouts volumes to these men who can only listen and learn. Likewise, he fills All About My Mother with strong female roles. Yet there is no corresponding man to act as counterpoint. The only male role of depth is Esteban (Eloy Azorín), the 17-year-old son of Manuela (Cecilia Roth), and he dies in the first act.

Manuela is center stage in this movie. She is a single mother living in Madrid on the eve of her son's birthday. Having fled Barcelona while pregnant, she has raised Esteban alone without reference to his father. Even her photos have been torn in two to remove all trace of the man. We see mother and son watching TV, the old Hollywood classic, All About Eve. And in some ways, this presages Manuela's immediate future, as she becomes something like Eve Harrington from that film.

When Esteban is killed in a freak accident after watching Huma Rojo (Marisa Paredes) and her lesbian lover Nina (Candela Peña) in the play, "Streetcar Named Desire," Manuela reads his private notebook. What he really wanted, more than anything, was to know all about his father.

Though Esteban wanted to find out all about his father, this movie is really all about his mother.

Grief-stricken, she determines to give up her job and return to Barcelona looking for her long-lost lover and father of Esteban. Arriving in Barcelona at night, she dramatically reunites with Agrado (Antonio San Juan), a she-male prostitute: a man with breasts, who lives as a woman. With Agrado, she visits Rosa (Penélope Cruz), a nun who ministers to the hookers. However, she finds Rosa is pregnant and needs someone to take care of her. Manuela needs a job and lands one working as personal assistant to Huma. As the movie plays out, Manuela finds herself as the mother figure in the middle of these three flamboyant females.

One of the implicit themes of All About My Mother is authenticity. Toward the end of the film, when Huma and Nina cannot perform in "Streetcar Named Desire," the producer is ready to cancel the show and give the audience their money back. Instead, Agrado persuades him to let her go on stage and offer to tell her story, explaining from her perspective what it takes to be real. Most of the audience are willing to listen instead of getting a refund. She tells them, "Well, as I was saying, it costs a lot to be authentic, ma'am. And one can't be stingy with these things because you are more authentic the more you resemble what you've dreamed of being."

Authenticity is a critical theme biblically, too. We are called to live out our faith in honesty and genuineness. We are commanded not to lie to one another (Col. 3:9). Indeed, it shows up as one of the Ten Commandments ("You shall not give false testimony against your neighbor", Ex. 20:16) and is repeated numerous times in the New Testament. Biblical living is authentic living, showing who we are to those around us. It means not covering up our faults but working to change in life transformation. It means not hiding our sins, but confessing them (Jas. 5:16) and receiving forgiveness from our heavenly father (1 Jn. 1:9).

But in Almodóvar's eyes, authenticity includes acting. When Huma asks Manuela if she can act, she replies, "I can lie very well, and I'm used to improvising." Acting is the cover that frees people to be who they want to be. And in so doing, they become authentic people, the people they always wanted to be. In this sense, by acting we can change who we are, our very nature, our gender. His becomes a very elastic definition of gender and womanhood.

This view is counter to biblical truth and is morally wrong. Certainly we can change. Indeed, God calls us to change, to be transformed (Rom. 12:). But such change is in turning from our old selves and habits to Jesus and hence become more and more Christ-like (Col. 3:5-10). If we act our way into a persona and lie to convince others that we are someone that we are not, we are living inauthentically, not authentically. One of the sins most condemned by Jesus was hypocrisy. The religious leaders of his day, the Pharisees, part on a religious mask that hid their dark hearts. In his words, they were "whitewashed tombs" (Matt. 23:27). In fact, the term hypocrisy comes from the greek word meaning to "actor." Such living is duplicitous. Almodóvar's bias becomes clear here.

If authenticity is the first theme, acceptance is the other. While Rosa's parents cannot accept Manuela, thinking she is a hooker, Manuela is accepting of those around her, even those who are diseased, disabled or disturbed by their natal sexuality. Their bigotry and prejudice is in sharp contrast with Manuela's compassion and care.

What a contrast this is with many traditional churches, who make it difficult for the marginalized to enter their doors. But just as Jesus ministered to the outcasts of society, so we also are commanded to do likewise. Today's outcasts are the prostitutes and lesbians, drug addicts and AIDS sufferers. Rosa gives a picture of a saint who cares but who falls into sin. We must care, like her and like Manuela. Will we put our faith into action even if it means rubbing shoulders with people who are transgendered? Will we love the lesbian while gently decrying the lifestyle? This seems to be a hard issue for the church today. Yet we must not and cannot simply ignore such men and women whose hearts cry out for love and acceptance and whose souls Jesus died for. Does he love us any more than he loves them? Absolutely not.

As All About My Mother comes to a conclusion, Manuela commits several striking acts of kindness to those who have been circling around her like planets around the sun. Her love transcends any sin or hurt that she has experienced. She looks beyond to offer grace to those in need. This is a fitting picture to end a poignant movie.

Some may write this film off as morally repugnant, supportive of gay and alternative lifestyles. But the movie is deeper than that. To appreciate it and be moved by it is to see the characters as real people craving acceptance. That's how God looks at all of us!

Copyright ©2009, Martin Baggs

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