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Illness, Authenticity and Tolerance in Pedro Almodóvar’s Todo sobre mi madre

From: Romance Notes
Volume 52, Number 3, 2012
pp. 311-323 | 10.1353/rmc.2012.0021

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Pedro Almodóvar’s interest in the medical world can be traced to the beginning of his filmography.1 However, the themes of illness and disability (as well as hospitals or clinics as a principal locations) are not the primary focus in his films until the end of the 1990’s, culminating with Hable con ella (2002).2 A clear example of this increasing focus on the aforementioned themes and décors which are only indirectly present in his early work, is Todo sobre mi madre (1999). In this film Almodóvar presents an unconventional vision of HIV and AIDS while exploring literal and metaphorical transplants in an attempt to propose a new kind of authenticity.3 Yet, though AIDS occupies a central place in this film, it appears in a distant, stylized manner, which symbolically represents an optimistic path towards health. I will argue here that for the first time the Spanish director rendered AIDS and HIV visible and yet paradoxically suppressed them by means of a typical almodovarian twist which implies an escape from realism (one which he has never espoused) toward a certain idea of tolerance in post-Franco Spain.4 This tolerance is embodied principally by Manuela who judges neither her ex-husband (now a transgender woman), the prostitute she later befriends (Agrado who is also transgender), the actress whose self-centeredness was partially responsible for her son’s death (Huma Rojo) nor the nun whose sexual improprieties has led to her contracting AIDS and thus being unable to care for the baby which Manuela will adopt as her own. This is thus a tolerance not only of sexual, gender or lifestyle difference, it is as though Manuela incarnated here a capacity for forgiveness which is specifically presented as a healing force, a kind of secular saintliness which nonetheless never appears to be super human. Manuela’s caring manifests itself in particular with respect to how she deals with illness – her goodness is essentially based on her willingness to care for others. Manuela is both the ideal nurse and the ideal mother.

Yet despite this emphasis on caring and a true acceptance of the ill other, in other ways, Todo sobre mi madre presents a flight from illness towards a miraculous cure,5 while indirectly highlighting an ethical problem which privileges the healthy subject over the disabled or ill subject. Therefore, the politico-metaphorical reading of illness in this film (as a shared experience of pain to be overcome through acceptance of difference) inasmuch as it eschews any realistic representation of the illness itself leaves the latter a highly reduced role, one which perhaps paradoxically risks signaling a rejection of the ill.

With this film the viewer is immersed in the medical milieu as this is the first time that Almodóvar has dealt with HIV and AIDS in a direct fashion.6 The Argentinean protagonist Manuela (Cecilia Roth) is a nurse who works as the coordinator of the transplant ward in a public hospital in Madrid. In this same hospital her son, Esteban (Eloy Azorín), dies when he is struck by a car while trying to get an autograph from the actress Huma Rojo (Marisa Paredes) whose taxi rushes off in the rain as he runs behind it. Her son’s death forces Manuela to leave for Barcelona (where she lived before his birth) in order to find Esteban’s transgender father (Toni Cantó) who, before becoming “Lola,” was also named Esteban. Before Manuela finds Lola who is now dying from AIDS she also meets an old friend, the transgender Agrado (Antonia San Juan) and Sister Rosa (Penélope Cruz) who, while she was taking care of Lola slept with her, contracted the virus and became pregnant. In Barcelona, Manuela meets Huma Rojo, the actress her son was trying to get an autograph from when he died, and begins working as her assistant.

Thus, a new life begins for Manuela made up of transformed and transplanted elements from her past which forge a new identity still characterized by her role as a caregiver. Having given up her position in Madrid she now takes care of Agrado (a prostitute who has been attacked by...



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