Today is Thanksgiving, a time of warmth, happiness, and relaxation.
For others is a time of pain, quarrels, and frustration.
Sometimes it is both.
Last fall I saw a Q & A with one of the greatest living directors today: Pedro Almodovar. When asked what theme he constantly returned to, what theme has been a constant throughout his entire career? His response was illuminating:
“I’ve always been intrigued by the deconstruction of the nuclear family. To show that often true family is not found in the traditional vision of it.”[i]
By traditional family I believe he means a post-industrial revolution family structure. A Leave it to Beaver prototype: Middle class, man as breadwinner, woman as homemaker, and two to three children to continue the way of tradition. Man has many paths he can choose for a future, while the woman only has one.
Upon reflection this theme can be seen in quite a few of his films despite it never being brought up in dialogue. Surprisingly not all the films are not an attack on the traditional family, but rather a celebration of alternative families. In Talk to Her, two totally different men form a beautiful brother-esque friendship despite surrounding controversies. In Law of Desire, a family is made up of a lonely gay film director, his transgender sister, and their little niece who was abandoned by her mother. Not the conventional family in the least! However through the tests and trials their deep-rooted love for each other remains. The Skin I Live In demonstrates the dysfunction that can stem from the traditional family. It tells the story of a Doctor Frankenstein inspired character who had it all, beautiful wife, loving daughter, and stunning house, but looses it all leading to much chaos and perversion. However the film in Pedro Almodovar’s cannon that expresses the beauty of “family” the most is his Academy Award Winning film All About My Mother.
All About My Mother tells the story of Manuela, a single Mother whose seventeen-year-old son is killed in a car accident. Manuela decides to seek out her son’s father, Lola, now a woman who never knew she had a son. While looking for Lola, she lives in a run down section of Barcelona and eventually becomes a mother to a lot of needy women. Such as Aargradoa a transsexual prostitute, Rosa a pregnant nun with AIDS, Huma Rojo a famous actress, and Rojo’s drug addicted lover and co-star Nina Cruz.
These are people society rejects: the pampered but insecure actress, the prostitute, the nun whose mistake she cannot hide, and the drug addict. Broken and rejected by a broken system that wishes to ignore their existence. Yet through the course of the film Manuela slowly but surely comes to love and care for all of them and in turn they all begin to care for each other: they become family. Though their lives are marred by tragedy through their encouragement and selfless love for one another they find hope.
Each of these characters are vividly and colorfully rendered by both Almodovar’s screenplay and filmmaking. Never is this idea of family ever articulated in the dialogue, forming a film that is far from sappy or preachy. The theme grows organically from the genius narrative. Almodovar cares about humanizing those who have been callously dehumanized. In All About My Mother family is not about filling certain roles such as the homemaker or breadwinner nor is it about being blood related. Family is about love, compassion, and support.
Much like Jesus in his day, Almodovar broadens and bends modern society’s definition of family.
So this Thanksgiving perhaps watch All About My Mother, reflect on this past year, and do not forget to be thankful for those who love you, show compassion towards you, and support you. They make life worth living.
[i] It a lot of ways it makes sense. Growing up in Spain, Almodovar lived under the rule of the conservative government ran by Franco. Franco enforced not only Catholicism, but also many traditional gender roles and family ideals. A rebellion was only natural in that kind of repressed environment. When Franco died in 1975 Almodovar participated in an artistic uprising in Spain known as La Movida Madrileña. His films, especially in earlier ones, can be viewed as a celebration of the freedom artists now had for expression. A disdain for the nuclear or “ideal” family seems like part of the package