Almodóvar, Old Reliable, Opens New York Film Fes

Pedro Almodóvar’s All About My Mother ( Todo Sobre Mi Madre ) turns out to be a logical and probably popular choice to open the 37th New York Film Festival on Sept. 24. I should know because I was there before the beginning in 1963, with co-founders Eugene Archer and Richard Roud, when just about every other film critic in New York was opposed to the idea of a festival. And I sat through many rough opening nights thereafter, and comparatively few easy ones.

All About My Mother does not break any new ground or push the envelope or blaze a trail or do whatever opening night festival films are supposed to do. Indeed, the 47-year-old Mr. Almodóvar is such a reliably known quantity–and quality–that the American Museum of the Moving Image is mounting a 12-film Almodóvar retrospective beginning Oct. 2, hailing him as “the most prominent and successful Spanish filmmaker since Luis Buñuel,” which is high praise indeed. Mr. Almodóvar’s overtly gay sensibility and his canny distancing through his flair for voluptuous color compositions and sinuous camera movements have enabled him to remain culturally respectable with the festival crowd as an unacknowledged guilty pleasure.

In this latest film, Manuela (Cecilia Roth), the mother of the title, sees her teenage son Esteban die in a traffic accident while chasing on foot a taxi carrying the star of a Madrid production of A Streetcar Named Desire . The actress, Huma Rojo (Marisa Paredes), sees the boy’s face for an instant out of the back window of her taxi, but does not realize that he is a young admirer of her Blanche Dubois. Nor does her female lover, Nina (Candela Peña), a drug addict who plays Stella and is seated beside her in the taxi.

While Manuela is grieving for her son she finds his diary, entitled All About My Mother , a title inspired by Esteban’s (and Mr. Almodóvar’s) admiration for Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s All About Eve . In his diary, Esteban notes that all his mother’s photos have been cut in half, as if his father–who supposedly died before he was born, but whom he desperately wants to know more about–had been purposely obliterated from Manuela’s memory. Moved by her late son’s obsession, Manuela leaves Madrid for Barcelona to find Esteban’s father and show him pictures of his dead son, of whom he is completely unaware.

En route, Manuela becomes involved with Sister Rosa (Penélope Cruz), a terminally ill social worker who has seen Esteban senior. She also joins the Streetcar troupe on the Barcelona stop of its tour and actually plays Stella on the stage on a night when Nina is indisposed by her addiction. Manuela also is reunited with Agrado (Antonia San Juan), a transvestite prostitute who lived with Manuela and Esteban’s father 20 years ago, before Esteban senior decided to become Lola the Pioneer, a transvestite prostitute on the open meat market. From Agrado, Manuela learns that Esteban (Lola) is very ill, and it becomes a race against time to reunite Esteban père and Esteban fils , if only through a photo.

The homages to Tennessee Williams and Mankiewicz are really tributes to all the actresses who were glorified in old Hollywood. Curiously, the ending of Streetcar staged repeatedly by Mr. Almodóvar is not the original ending of the play, but the moralistic let’s-punish-Stanley-for-raping-Blanche ending imposed by the censors. Still, All About My Mother , for all its self-deconstruction, is played with more sobriety and conviction than any of Mr. Almodóvar’s previous films.

I can’t say it made me cry–and I am a notoriously easy crier–even though it is drenched with death and mourning what might have been. I simply couldn’t avoid the feeling that I was witnessing an old story retold from a universe parallel to my own with an intervening layer of high camp. Nonetheless, the film gurus at Lincoln Center could have done a lot worse for an opening night kickoff.

For those without tickets to the premiere, at 2 P.M. on Oct. 2 at the American Museum of the Moving Image, you can catch Pepi, Luci, Bom (1980), which is described in the program thusly: “Almodóvar’s crude, rude and hilarious debut chronicles a woman’s

revenge after being raped by a policeman. She arranges to have the cop’s wife kidnapped by a lesbian punk rocker, only to

discover that the wife is a masochist who loves being mistreated.” This is a plot line that touches all the bases with a vengeance,

and is typical of the farcical frenzy that is more or less typical of the pansexual pandemonium Mr. Almodóvar contrives in all his post-Franco frolics, liberated to a point some might consider sheer licentiousness.

At 4 P.M. is Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown (1987), presenting Mr. Almodóvar in a more somber light as the ironic inheritor of the already ironic Douglas Sirk and Ross Hunter Universal Technicolor woman’s weepies of the late 50’s and early 60’s.

Another Try From Canada

Audrey Wells’ Guinevere takes what starts out to be a May-September romance between sensational Sarah Polley’s Harper Sloane and the old reliable Stephen Rea’s Connie Fitzpatrick all the way to June and December. Harper, the underachieving daughter of an upper-class Montreal family, meets Connie, a low-key wedding photographer, at her sister’s upscale wedding, and is immediately smitten with his bohemian knowingness and professional self-confidence. His “line” of seduction is expertly calibrated to attract emotionally insecure Harper, and he reels her in as if she were an only moderately reluctant goldfish. We learn later that Connie has had much practice “mentoring” nubile artistic wannabes into what virtually amounted to a serial harem.

Ms. Wells takes the two ultimately mismatched lovers to the point of no return and beyond, as Mr. Rea’s Connie degenerates into a pathetic wreck of a failure with his pitifully exhausted cocker-spaniel eyes. Literally and figuratively long of tooth near the end, Connie is painfully humiliated when two teeth fall out at a restaurant rendezvous with Harper.

Harper and Connie nonetheless never become cautionary characters. The movie is much subtler than that even in the dregs of defeat and disillusion. The acting is exemplary, with Ms. Polley and Mr. Rea ably supported by Gina Gershon, Jean Smart, Carrie Preston and Jasmine Guy. In the final analysis, Ms. Polley is a charter member in my own vicarious harem, which grows more populous by the hour.

Sex and Cinema

Catherine Breillat’s Romance crosses the arbitrary line between soft-core, or simulated, and hard-core, or explicit sex, in the cinema. Of course, there may be particularly degraded wretches out there among the raincoat brigades who insist on the creamy cum shot as the ultimate test of pornographic authenticity. I am not among them, since most, if not all, triple-X enterprises have always struck me as anti-erotic documentaries of a boring subculture with no fantasy life of its own.

When I say that Ms. Breillat has crossed the line, I do not mean to imply that she is not a serious, if eminently provocative artist. Still, I have not met a man who has seen the film who has not thoroughly hated it. Female viewers seem more ambivalent, and no wonder. Ms. Breillat’s heroine Marie (Caroline Ducey) is clearly the aggressor in her relationships with her lover Paul (Sagamore Stévenin) and a pickup named Paolo, played by French porn star Rocco Siffredi. Even in her masochistic submission to Robert (François Berléand), a comparatively cerebral sadist, Marie is actually more worshipped than punished.

Ms. Breillat’s previous films have been less explicit and thus not surprisingly more erotic, as a recent retrospective of her work at the Anthology Film Archives amply demonstrated. My reservations about Romance have less to do with Ms. Breillat’s philosophical speculations on women’s sexual desires and appetites than with the monotony of a film narrative peopled with characters who have nothing but sex on their minds at all times, and talk about nothing else as well.

Part 2 in a Stormy Trilogy

Deepa Mehta’s Earth , based on the novel Cracking India by Bapsi Sidhwa, works best as a timely reminder that there is nothing new about the murderous and even genocidal atrocities generated by ancient ethnic and religious hatreds. More than half a century ago, in 1947, to be precise, the liberation of the Indian subcontinent from British rule precipitated a mutual slaughter of Hindus and Muslims in newly independent India and newly formed Pakistan. These hatreds persist to this day, particularly in the disputed province of Kashmir.

Ms. Mehta’s child’s-eye view of this period puts too great a burden on the observation and understanding of Lenny (Maia Sethna), a 5-year-old Parsee girl who is surrounded by acquaintances, both Hindu and Muslim, who are ultimately engulfed in the tribal hatreds of the subcontinent. Lenny’s beautiful Hindu nanny Shanta (Nandita Das) becomes a tragic pawn as Lahore, Pakistan, slides into an unforgiving religious nationalism when trainloads of slain Muslims arrive from India.

While the background amounts to a mini- double holocaust, the foreground intrigue between two Muslim men, who in bitter competition for Shanta’s affections precipitate her doom, fails to be as clearly focused as Mehta’s previous film, Fire , the first of the filmmaker’s proposed trilogy of elemental forces at work in her ever-stormy homeland.

Give Reese a Chance

I seem to be the only New York film critic who liked Mike Barker’s Best Laid Plans , from a screenplay by Ted Griffin. Could it be that Reese Witherspoon, its female lead, has entered my vicarious harem, or is it that I succumbed to the film’s ratty charm in showing how treacherous old-school friendships can be–especially when put to the test by the morally marginal characters played by the underappreciated Alessandro Nivola and Josh Brolin. Not edifying, certainly, but thoroughly entertaining.