Not until now has Pedro Almodóvar so explicitly broached the violent history of his home country. The Spanish maestro has long hinted at the repressive regime he was born into, simply by virtue of the ways his vibrant melodramas reject any sense of propriety—what shame there is implicit to Spain’s history during and after the rule of General Francisco Franco lingers underneath the provocative stories and meticulous compositions that so typify an Almodóvar film. An exchange between the title characters of his latest feature makes clear, unequivocally, that memories of El Caudillo’s white terror have always haunted his farcical sagas, when the older of the two mothers, played by Penélope Cruz, tells the younger one during an argument that it’s time she knew her country’s history. This comes after the teenage mother decries the other’s obsession with unearthing the mass grave where her great-grandfather was interred. Running from her own trauma, the young woman believes that people need to move forward rather than look back.
Born in 1949, Almodóvar moved in 1967 from the small rural town of Calzada de Calatrava to Madrid in the hopes of becoming a filmmaker, only to discover that Franco had closed the National School of Cinema. After the general’s death in 1975, Almodóvar emerged as a key figure in La Movida Madrileña, a post-Francoist counterculture whose participants expressed themselves in ways previously forbidden. The proud bastard child of the punk and new wave movements that had taken hold elsewhere in the world, La Movida Madrileña was the auspice under which Almodóvar made his first several films, among them Pepi, Luci, Bom (1980), Labyrinth of Passion (1982), and Dark Habits (1983). Each is a cavalier refutation of the societal mores that had governed Spanish society under Franco, and it’s in these films that Almodóvar developed the throughlines of his career, including blithe depictions of such taboo subjects as gratuitous sex, queerness, physical and sexual abuse, incest, and drug use, as well as his use of exquisite costumes and set design to beautify the repugnance.
Some of these tendencies are present in Parallel Mothers—which, like Julieta (2016) and Pain and Glory (2019) before it—is altogether more serious than his early films. In her seventh collaboration with the director, Cruz stars as Janis Martinez, a fashion photographer who’s seen at the start taking pictures of a handsome forensic anthropologist, Arturo (Israel Elejalde). She asks Arturo for help in unearthing the mass grave where her great-grandfather was buried after he was shot by Nationalists in the early days of the Spanish Civil War. Residing on the board of an organization that aids in excavating such burial grounds, Arturo promises to do what he can. The two soon begin a romantic affair, and Janis becomes pregnant by the married Arturo. When she’s ready to give birth (alone), her roommate at the hospital is Ana (Milena Smit), a teenage girl who also became pregnant by accident. The two bond over their circumstances and being first-time moms; Ana’s own mother, Teresa (Aitana Sánchez-Gijón), hangs around, but she’s preoccupied with an upcoming audition for a Lorca play.
Janis and Ana exchange information but lose contact after giving birth. They encounter one another again some time later when Ana takes a job at a cafe near Janis’s apartment. Janis hires Ana to be a live-in nanny for her daughter, Cecilia, and, as befitting an Almodóvar film, the two women enter into a sexual relationship. This twist, however, pales in comparison to the one that dominates the film and which I won’t spoil here. It’s also at this point that the tone of the film shifts, lending substance to the Saul Bass-esque title sequence that opens the film. Blood-red and black, and utilizing the recognizable shape of photographic film (a reference to both Janis’s profession and the photographs of the slain men her great-grandfather took shortly before the murder), the opening sequence recalls the titles of films like Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo and Otto Preminger’s Anatomy of a Murder; it’s at odds with the beginning of the film but loyal to its sensational midsection.
This part is also loyal to earlier Almodóvar films, where any trace of sentimentality exists only under a thick layer of multihued irony. As it approaches the end, Parallel Mothers regains the placid timbre of its beginning, becoming rather somber in its return to the mass grave that was Janis’s proverbial baby before she had an actual child. Ana, Janis, and Janis’s best friend (Almodóvar regular Rossy de Palma) trek to the burial site with women from the nearby village, all of them carrying photographs of their loved ones, an image familiar in media about disappeared persons under totalitarian regimes. Almodóvar mimics this by featuring a slideshow of the photos taken by Janis’s great-grandfather, temporarily disrupting the narrative flow with an element of documentary that poignantly breaks through the facade of the fictional world.
Parallel Mothers has just one major male character, Arturo; otherwise every other principal cast member is female. Though Almodóvar’s films have often centered on female characters, this one feels especially like a love letter to Spanish women and to women in general. Almodóvar exhibits empathy toward the wives, daughters, and descendants of Spain’s tens of thousands of disappeared persons, who have had to bear the brunt of their absence emotionally as well as logistically (they’re the ones who’ve dedicated themselves to giving proper burials to their deceased relatives). He also makes a connection between national violence and sexual violence; Ana’s daughter was conceived through rape, which her parents pressured her to keep secret. Ana may be ignorant of her country’s history (it’s also implied that her parents are politically conservative), but she’s not ignorant of violence and its lingering effects. No man is an island, but each woman is a country, a history of its pain.
A subtle and personal masterpiece, Almodóvar’s last film, Pain and Glory, is a tough act to follow, and indeed, Parallel Mothers is not among the best of his storied career. The connections between the present-day narrative and Spanish history at times feel tenuous, even forced; the connection between the two is less a parallel and more a perpendicular meeting of two different lines. The love affair between Janis and Ana also feels awkward, as if inserted solely for the purpose of making the film more transgressive. In his explicitness about one thing, it seems Almodóvar is reluctant to be less explicit about the others, unwilling to sacrifice shock in support of a larger, more heartrending awe. Each part of the film—Janis and the unusual circumstances around her experience becoming a mother; the pursuit of having her great-grandfather exhumed and given a proper burial—is consequential on its own, but when put together, the results feel almost like an afterthought.