Good roles for actresses have been rare in 1999. But Pedro Almodóvar’s transfixing tragicomedy — the best foreign movie of the year — is also the best showcase for actresses in ages. The openly gay writer and director dominated Spanish cinema in the 1980s with sexually explosive campfests, notably Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, that made garish pop art of the female psyche.
At forty-eight, Almodóvar shows a new maturity through storytelling that digs deeper and leaves scars. His film, borrowing inspiration from the 1950 Bette Davis classic All About Eve, isn’t just about actresses but about how women act. Take Manuela, the mother played with sad-eyed beauty and mournful grace by Cecilia Roth. As part of her job as an organ-transplant coordinator at a Madrid hospital, Manuela runs workshops on how to prepare families for a patient’s death. But when a car kills Manuela’s teenage son, Esteban (Eloy Azorin), while he’s chasing the famous actress Huma Rojo (the stunning Marisa Paredes) for an autograph, Manuela is at a loss as to how to act.
Manuela leaves Madrid for Barcelona to seek out the boy’s father, now living as a woman named Lola. In her search for human connection, Manuela finds work with the flamboyant Huma, touring in A Streetcar Named Desire with a junkie co-star, Nina (Candela Peña), who is also her lesbian lover. Add to this mix the transsexual La Agrado (Antonia San Juan) and a young nun (Penélope Cruz) who is pregnant by Lola — the baby is born HIV-positive. What could be the stuff of soap opera is transformed by Almodóvar and a quintet of transcendent actresses into a unique and unforgettable tribute to female solidarity.