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Roth's roles are odes to motherhood and female experience

Locked down? Open up to… Argentine actress Cecilia Roth

Roth’s extensive body of work as a longtime collaborator with famed director Almodovar touches on one of the most consequential events of world history — forced exile

Actress Cecilia Roth on the red carpet for the film 'El Profugo,' 'The Intruder' during the 70th International Film Festival Berlin, Berlinale in Berlin, Germany, February 21, 2020. (Christoph Soeder/dpa via AP)
Actress Cecilia Roth on the red carpet for the film 'El Profugo,' 'The Intruder' during the 70th International Film Festival Berlin, Berlinale in Berlin, Germany, February 21, 2020. (Christoph Soeder/dpa via AP)

Argentine-Spanish cinema is a unique collaboration that’s captivated international audiences for decades under the direction of such greats as Spanish movie maestro Pedro Almodovar and Argentina’s Adolfo Aristarain. As I rewatch several of their classic films and others with my Israeli husband during our lockdown, I’ve rediscovered Jewish Argentine actress Cecilia Roth.

Roth, whose greatest cinematic roles are odes to femininity, motherhood and the female experience in the most loving way, is a longtime collaborator with Almodovar, one of the world’s most famous filmmakers whose influence is profoundly felt throughout Latin America. 

She rose to stardom in Almodovar’s campy first feature “Pepi, Luci, Bom” (1980) and eventually helped earn him his first Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film with the masterpiece “All About My Mother” (1999). In it, she portrayed the Jewish Manuela Coifman, a single mother who loses her teenage son Esteban in an accident and then travels cross-country in search of his father Esteban Sr., now a transgender woman, who deserted her 17 years ago.

In another notable performance, Roth stars in Aristarain’s “Martin (hache)” as the cocaine-addicted girlfriend of a successful filmmaker, Martin, whose 19-year-old son moves to Spain to live with him after having accidentally overdosed during his rock show in Buenos Aires. 

Spanish director Pedro Almodovar, center, cools off in the sea with actresses Penelope Cruz, left, and Cecilia Roth, in Cannes, France, May 18, 1999. (AP Photo/Rhonda Galbraith)

Roth, one of Argentina’s leading actresses, has portrayed some of the most resilient women in Spanish-language cinema, including a mother who saves her intellectual family from a brutal dictatorship in “Kamchatka” (2002).

Born in Buenos Aires in 1956, Cecilia Edith Rotenberg Gutkin began her acting career when she 18, but her life in Argentina was abruptly uprooted by the 1976-1983 rule of the military junta. Her family was forced to seek refuge in Madrid, where a 36-year rule by its own dictator, general Francisco Franco, had just ended. In a 1999 interview with the left-leaning Argentine newspaper Pagina 12, Roth described her exile to Spain as moving to a “site that luckily was experiencing a moment of great change,” referring to the European country’s transition to democracy.

Roth’s father, Abrasha Rotenberg, is a Ukrainian-born Jew and former editor of La Opinion, whose founder Jacobo Timerman was a childhood friend. (Timerman  himself, another Soviet-born Jew, had been driven into political exile in 1979 to Israel.)

Her mother, Dina Rot, is a singer who has dedicated her career to Judaeo-Spanish music as well as Hebrew and Yiddish songs.

Roth has said that though her parents are nonreligious Jews, at home they instilled a sense of pride in their Jewish heritage. “I have always been in touch with my Jewish culture,” Roth said in the 1999 interview.

Spanish actress Cecilia Roth, Spanish movie director Pedro Almodovar and Spanish actor Antonio Banderas, from left, pose with their award received in a ceremony by the European Film Academy at the Schiller Theater in Berlin on December.4, 1999. (AP Photo/pool)

During the coronavirus crisis, what has also drawn this writer to Roth (besides the initial joy of sharing a name) is her extensive body of work that touches on one of the most consequential events of world history: forced exile.

I’ve complied a chronological list of Roth films to consider adding to your next indie movie night. There are many online streaming platforms, both paid and free, that host complete collections of Almodovar films as well as other wonderful movies starring Roth.

‘Martin (hache)

There are many touching father and son scenes in “Martin (hache),” including a few climactic ones led by Roth’s unhinged character Alicia. She is the force majeure who pushes the buried emotions of Martin senior and junior to the forefront; she is also sexualized by both men at different times. 

One of my favorite lines in the film takes place in Madrid’s airport, a scene that brings nostalgia for moments such as reuniting with loved ones separated by vast lands and oceans. Martin Jr. (in Spanish he is referred to as H, pronounced hache, as in hijo or son) has just landed in Spain and is immediately embraced by his godfather. Hache looks really incredible, he says proudly as if he could take the credit. “Time passes, children grow up, it’s a small world,” Martin Sr. responds smugly, using a well-known Spanish idiom “el mundo es un pañuelo” (the world is a handkerchief).

‘All About My Mother’

It was Roth’s performance in “Martin (hache)” that convinced Almodovar to ask her to star in what is considered his best film yet. “All About My Mother” has been referred to as an homage to the great heroines of the stage, with influences from Bette Davis in “All About Eve” and protagonist Blanche DuBois of “A Streetcar Named Desire.”

Almodovar was quoted saying in the Los Angeles Times that Roth, as Manuela Coifman, “had really matured as a dramatic actress. She brought a level of sobriety and sincerity and an almost unbearable pain to the character of Manuela.” 

In “All About My Mother,” theater troupe members Manuela and Esteban Sr. leave Buenos Aires for Spain in an undisclosed timeline. It can be assumed through isolated references that the couple fled Argentina’s dictatorship that frequently targeted left-wing political opponents, intellectuals, artists and Jews.

The film is an emotionally satisfying take on the old 1950s Hollywood melodrama with an ensemble of female, transgender and drag actors. And Manuela is the glue that holds every turbulent scene of this magnificent film together.

‘Kamchatka’

Finally, there’s the historical drama of 2002’s “Kamchatka,” where the theme of dictatorship is no longer a one-line reference but what drives every carefully selected word, object and sound in the film.

Roth portrays a science professor from Buenos Aires who goes into hiding with her family under assumed identities. She and her husband, played by superstar Ricardo Darin, are simply referred to as mom and dad in the script. Part of the second wave of films addressing the topic of the military junta, “Kamchatka” is among the best. 

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