Women on the edge of a nervous breakdown are at the heart of Pedro Almodovar's 13th outing, "All About My Mother," an emotionally satisfying and brilliantly played take on the ups and (mostly) downs of a group of less-than-typical female friends.

Women on the edge of a nervous breakdown are at the heart of Pedro Almodovar’s 13th outing, “All About My Mother,” an emotionally satisfying and brilliantly played take on the ups and (mostly) downs of a group of less-than-typical female friends. Subject and style are distinctively the helmer’s own, with credits starkly declaring “a film by Almodovar.” But the energetic kitsch of his early work has now largely given way to thought-provoking melodrama (dubbed “Almodrama” by local crix) and a profound empathy with offbeat characters who were once little more than vehicles for comedy. In Spain, where the film opens today, the helmer’s rep and a major pre-release marketing drive will ensure that “Mother” brings home the B.O. baby. International prospects also look good; pic has pre-sold to most major territories, including the U.S., and plays in competition in Cannes next month.

In the hands of a less skilled ensemble, pic’s stormy emotional climate would seem excessive. Almodovar vet Cecilia Roth plays Manuela, a nurse and single mother in her late 30s who raised Esteban (Eloy Azorin) after coming to Madrid from Barcelona 18 years before. Early scenes develop the relationship between the two and emphasize Manuela’s emotional dependence on her son. Esteban, a Truman Capote fan and would-be novelist, is writing a story about his mother for a competition. After a theater visit to see “A Streetcar Named Desire,” he runs into the street to get the autograph of actress Huma Rojo (Marisa Paredes), and is killed by a passing car as Manuela looks on.

Wanting to get back in touch with Esteban’s father (Toni Canto) — another Esteban who, in the interim, has become a transvestite called Lola, La Pionera — Manuela returns to Barcelona. She stops off in a slum district, where she sees an old friend, goodhearted transsexual La Agrado (rubber-faced Antonia San Juan) being beaten up. When she goes in search of work, Manuela meets Huma Rojo, who’s playing Blanche in “Streetcar”; Huma’s junkie g.f., Nina (Candela Pena); innocent do-gooder nun Sister Rosa (Penelope Cruz); and her hysterical, uncomprehending mother (Rosa Maria Sarda). All the women have some emotional burden to bear.

The emotional tone is predominantly dark and confrontational, with death, pain and disease always just around the corner. But thanks to a sweetly paced and genuinely witty script, pic doesn’t become depressing as it focuses on the characters’ stoic resilience and good humor. Roth binds it all together with a nice perf as a woman with powerful maternal instincts locked into a permanent struggle against grief: Eventually, she realizes that friendship can provide satisfying emotional rewards.

The film is studded with cultural refs that place it within the tradition of ’50s melodrama — one scene has Manuela and Esteban discussing “All About Eve,” and the Tennessee Williams parallels are played for all they’re worth — but its self-conscious elements are subtly interwoven into the narrative and never threaten to lower the emotional temperature.

The same cannot be said about the visuals. It all looks terrific — buffs of the helmer’s pop aesthetic will not be disappointed — but the crisp, glossy reds and blues are juxtaposed in sharp contrasts that occasionally distract from the action. Almodovar cannot resist finding the visual poetry in a scene — but when, for example, the scene is a Barcelona slum at night, authenticity is sacrificed. Similarly, the stylized beauty of the sets works against the movie’s evident desire to ring true emotionally.

Detailed lensing is occasionally high-risk arty. Sometimes it works, as when we see Esteban’s death from his point of view, and sometimes not, as when we see him writing from the pen-nib’s perspective. Time shifts, too, are awkwardly handled.

Dialogue is typically sharp-eared and more upbeat than of late. Perfs are superb across the board; in a difficult role, the little-known San Juan successfully provides the comic relief virtually single-handed. Almodovar uses Cruz as much for her aura of fragility as for her beauty. Paredes — who starred in the director’s “The Flower of My Secret” (1995) in a similar role as the troubled older woman — also stands out. Bebop-influenced score by Alberto Iglesias provides a cool aural counterpoint to the emotional extremes, and the film’s credit-titles homage to the artwork of the Blue Note jazz label is a joy.

All About My Mother

Spanish-French

Production

A Warner Sogefilms (in Spain)/Sony Pictures Classics (in U.S.) release of an El Deseo (Spain)/Renn Prods., France 2 Cinema (France) production, in association with Via Digital. (International sales: G2, London.) Produced by Agustin Almodovar. Directed, written by Pedro Almodovar.

Crew

Camera (color), Affonso Beato; editor, Jose Salcedo; music, Alberto Iglesias; art director, Antxon Gomez; sound (Dolby Digital), Miguel Rejas. Reviewed at Cine Avenida, Madrid, April 13, 1999. (In Cannes Film Festival -- competing.)

With

Manuela - Cecilia Roth Esteban - Eloy Azorin Huma Rojo - Marisa Paredes Sister Rosa - Penelope Cruz Nina - Candela Pena La Agrado - Antonia San Juan Rosa's Mother - Rosa Maria Sarda Lola, La Pionera - Toni Canto

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