"YOU ARE MORE authentic the more you are closer to what you've dreamed you are," says Agrado (Antonia San Juan), a silicone-laden, transgendered ex-prostitute in Pedro Almodovar's new film, All About My Mother. Agrado's self-description is one of several such sentiments in the movie to acknowledge the strength that lies behind dreams and their lowly, more practical sisters -- deception and artifice. With his usual command of color and urgent flamboyancy, Almodovar has created a heartbreaking work that pays tribute not only to his biological mother but to the art of cinema itself, and the maternal hand it has had in shaping the improvisations of anyone trying to make the world match the scope of their reveries.

Manuela, played with a fierce, wounded tenderness by Cecilia Roth, is the core mother in a story that spreads out to find the extravagant, motherly instincts in a myriad of characters. Suffering a private grief after the accidental death of her beloved son Esteban (Eloy Azorin), Manuela sets out for Barcelona in search of the boy's absent, mysterious father. She encounters there both the scrappy deceivers of her past, in the form of the aforementioned, remarkable San Juan, and the other proud, indomitable liars who will shape her future: Rosa (radiant Penelope Cruz), a pregnant, no-nonsense social worker; and Huma Rojo (the magnificent Marisa Paredes), a Grande Dame of the Theatre who wistfully recalls that "smoke is all there's been in my life."

Aside from a fleeting, overreaching misstep when Manuela finally confronts her old flame (played by a significantly weak Toni Canto), Almodovar navigates the momentum and melodrama of his events with a layered, deeply affecting grasp of how much reality can -- and crucially, must -- come to resemble fantasy. His "mothers," through their deceptions, make the world a larger place to be for those they love. He folds in rich references to that most devastating of plays about struggling dreamers, A Streetcar Named Desire, in which a suffering Huma is appearing as Blanche -- and which, fittingly, is performed here using the very different ending of the 1951 movie version.

All About My Mother is, by Agrado's definition, triumphantly authentic.

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