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ALMOVODAR'S LATEST FILM IS A SCREWBALL TEARJERKER

"Eve Unveiled." That's the English approximation of the Spanish title for "All About Eve," and fresh-faced young Esteban (Eloy Azorin) isn't happy about the inaccuracy as he and his mother, Manuela (Cecilia Roth), sit watching the ultimate saga of backstage backstabbers on the eve of the boy's 17th birthday.

It's merely the first in a succession of translated American masterworks mother and son will share in the next 24 hours. Esteban is a budding young writer with an affinity for Truman Capote's prose and a passion for the female lead in a Spanish production of "A Streetcar Named Desire."

His mom's a performer herself, albeit on a smaller scale: she played Stella in a community theater production years ago, and even today she acts in medical training tapes as part of her hospital work.

What neither of them can know at the moment is that Manuela will very soon come to reenact bits and pieces of each of these fictions when catastrophe upturns her orderly existence in a split second. Death, disease, and drugs all enter the picture with enough force for a three-hankie tearjerker, but so do the twists and turns of classic screwball comedy.

So let's call "All About My Mother" a screwball tearjerker. Unwieldy though the phrase may be (not unlike "Eve Unveiled"), it's still a pretty fair description of what writer/director Pedro Almodovar has been up to for the last two decades in such films as "Matador," "Law of Desire," and his 1987 U.S. breakthrough, "Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown."

Critics are fond of calling him the Spanish answer to John Waters, but even at his crudest in his early films, Almodovar's sensibility is considerably more subtle, his visual sense more complex, and his direction of actors more assured than that of the man who gave us "Pink Flamingos" and "Polyester."

Given the differences between them, however, it's also true that both filmmakers have, er, "matured" over the years, in much the same way: budgets are bigger, plots are a wee bit less outrageous, and the rough edges have been smoothed away ever so slightly. Unfortunately, a good deal of what was initially so enjoyable about their allegedly adolescent work has been sacrificed in the resulting turn toward well-made grown-up drama.

Fear not: "Mother" still has its fair share of vomiting nuns, histrionic drag queens and heroin-addicted lesbians; it's just that they're all photographed beautifully and presented in the best of taste, complete with a heart-rending musical score by Alberto Iglesias. In fact, I'd venture to say this is one of the very few vomiting-nun films you could conceivably take your own mother to, depending on her tolerance for such things.

Offended or not, she would surely admire the remarkable work of Cecilia Roth (a veteran of Almodovar's earliest features) as Manuela, along with the three other performers whose stories are interconnected with hers: Marisa Paredes as the diva who plays Blanche DuBois, Penelope Cruz as the weak-stomached Sister Rosa, and especially Antonia San Juan as a truth-telling transsexual prostitute.

If that cast of characters sounds like another quartet of women on the verge of nervous breakdowns, so be it: Almodovar knows this territory well, and he chronicles it with a precision only a mother could love.

RATING: 3 1/2 STARS

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