Pedro is dead. Long live Almodovar. Those expecting a return to the inflated camp and Technicolor kitsch of the Spanish director's previous efforts will be surprised by his 13th feature. The fact that all his gaudy idiosyncrasies appear to have been loaded into one comic character (scene-stealing wax-faced she-man La Agrado) is no coincidence. With the volume turned down on Almodovar's saltier elements, All About My Mother is arguably his most mature feature to date. It's certainly his most moving.
Almodovar prods at serious concerns alien to earlier works. AIDS, death and maternal grief are weighty themes, and one suspects that a more heavy-handed director would have had the audience choking under the emotional pressure. Almodovar, though, has worked it out beautifully, taking his usual off-beat characters and stripping away their broader elements. That All About My Mother simmers with such empathy is thanks mostly to the cast. The performances, bar none, are outstanding. Serving as both the picture's emotional core and a raft of normality in a sea choppy with eccentricities, Roth turns in one of the year's best performances as the stoic, stunned and spirited Manuela. Add Penelope Cruz's vulnerable wayward nun Sister Rosa and the foul-mouthed verve of San Juan's unforgettable Agrado and you have an outstanding example of ensemble acting.
By the time the final flamboyant visual whisks past and the end credits float, you'd have to possess a wasp's heart not to have been moved by the experience. It's then you realise that this isn't a movie about death. It's a movie about friendship, about redemption, about death giving birth to life. And a brilliant one at that.