Directed by Pedro Almodóvar
With Penélope Cruz (Janis), Israel Elejalde (Arturo), Milena Smit (Ana), Aitana Sánchez-Gijón (Teresa)
Director Pedro Almodóvar has rarely overlooked what was going on in the Spain where he has been churning out shorts and features since the mid-1970s. His stories showed a man aware of social changes, yet not really interested in a more political take on the nation. Then the enfant terrible born in the Movida years proved more willing to tackle the huge historical transformation that started in the 1950s, that is, how a mainly rural and traditional nation turned in less than two generations into a dynamic urban and modern European nation, with “Dolor y Gloria – Pain and Glory” in 2019, and to a far lesser extent in 2006 “Volver”. History is now a topic for the director, but within tight bounds.
With “Madres paralelas – Parallel Mothers”, things go to a new, bold direction. The first scenes make the case glaring: the 23rd feature of Almodóvar copes with the Civil War and its legacy, in particular the issues of a collective, official historical memory of memory and how to deal with the remains of the victims of the Francisco Franco-led regime, a serious bone of contention between the right, in charge of the country when the story takes place, and the left, who rules Spain as the film is shot. Photographer Janis, after shooting an anthropologist who is famous for his work on the mass graves the Civil War has left across Spain, scattered and eagerly researched by many families, asks him to help the folks of her native village excavate one of those mass graves, where lie the bodies of villagers killed by the supporters of the July 1936 coup against the Republic, including her great-grandfather.
Arturo accepts – and sleeps with Janis. The political issue leads abruptly to romance, but it does not last: when Janis finds out she is pregnant and chooses to keep the baby, Arturo, who is married, is displeased, and both break up. There would be thus no parallel between the quest for historical truth and a life to build with four hands and two hearts: it is the relation between mother and child that would be investigated in the shadow of the Civil War.
Actually, as promised by the film’s title, it is a tale of a twin motherhood, Janis’s and the one experienced by the young woman she meets in the hospital where she is to deliver at nearly 40 her daughter, Ana, who is on the legal threshold between minority and majority, lives with her mother Teresa, away from a father who does not like her and even less her accidental pregnancy, afraid to be a mother.
The film slowly explores how both women get closer, becoming intimate, with the death of Ana’s baby as a turning point, driving the shy woman to break from Teresa, who is consummed by her artistic career, as a theater actress, and does not know how to deal with a daughter she has barely knew, as the family of her husband, Ana’s father, has never accepted this artistic aspiration and her desire for a free, rewarding life. Ana ends up being the nanny of Janis’ daughter, then her maid, and then her lover. All the while, without Ana or anyone else realizing how distraught she is, Janis is grappling with the terrible doubt that Arturo has stirred: could it be possible her baby was not hers, since her physiognomy is so, let’s say, peculiar? Well, it turns out she is not, and that a mix-up occurred back at the hospital, so she is raising Ana’s baby, while Ana is mourning her own, real daughter. That does not help the couple to hold together, already marred by Ana’s jealous mind and her lack of interest for the big issue haunting Janis, the mass grave story.
The melodrama eventually ends up under the sign of reconciliation, Janis and Arturo granting themselves a second chance, while the photographer and Ana remain strong friend, and Janis still looks after the little girl whom she once thought was hers but now seems to belong to an extended, surprising family. Running in parallel with reconciliation comes the long-expected, heartbreaking effort of retrieving the dead to mourn them properly at long last, with the truth about their ordeal and the nation’s bloody past fully exposed.
The titles and credits sequences tinker playfully with contact sheets: more than a smart nod to the lead character’s job, that points to the importance of the still image as a repository of memories and emotion. Janis’s swanky Madrid apartment has a whole wall decorated with black and white photos of ancestors, the relative who got killed in the Civil War as well as those who survived and kept information and memories about him. And of course, photos of the babies, especially the daughter Janis raises, pop up on the screen of ubiquitous smartphones: pictures are the constant reminder of the seemingly unbreakable bond between the generations, between those who have departed from life and those who arrive in this world. Surrounded by those photos, Janis fiercely struggles to hold her ground between remembrance and motherhood, past and future, connecting relatives who shaped her life and are going to. Of course, it makes the disappearance, actually the double disappearance, of her daughter devastating and her passion about her native place’s bloody history heartfelt, and both remarkably genuine and intense to watch.
It is another object that binds together the elements of the film, a tiny, mundane medical device that is not an obvious candidate to be a narrative’s kingpin, a swab. Janis frantically swabs the baby’s mouth, her mouth, and later Ana’s mouth to find the truth, and it is with enthusiasm she swabs the villagers’ mouths to help Arturo collect the needed information allowing to identify the dead bodies rightly: ADN is the truth that both shocks and reassures, destroys a hope and help bring a sense of closure, lets the two narrative strands reach their own, specific end, then allowing Janis to move forward – her reconciliation with Arturo at the same time as he wraps up his job leaves open the door to a new motherhood and a new pride.
Still, the parallels that make up this features are bold. Starting on quite stark and strident political terms, the film, quickly first but then ponderously, explores a relationship veering into the familiar playground of fluid gender and sex identities and sentiments stoked essentially by high personal emotions and revolving around a struggling but proud womanhood – except that the lesbian love pushes the narrative envelope and looks like a hackneyed twist readily drawn from the Almodóvar’s tool box. As the relation between Ana and Janis evolves, the film is careful to keep the Civil War in the picture, with a detail such as the fact that Teresa makes it big on the stage with a play written by one of the first artists killed in the war, poet and playwright Federico García Lorca, or the convenient comeback of Arturo; yet the moves just point out how remote and highly specific the historical memory is from the vortex of troubles and emotions that assail Janis. “Madres paralelas” labors to be organic and powerful, to merge its elements into a smooth and compelling unity.
Much in fact rests on the shoulders of lead actress Penélope Cruz, an awesome performer who makes her character hold things together. In a way, the film is another portrait of a strong lady, whose strength is precisely to overcome the pains, difficulties, challenges the melodrama holds in stock to get a fresh chance to live, with the past no longer feeling like a burden. Indeed, the last shots of the film rank among the most powerful Almodóvar has imagined, as the living lie where the dead have been lain for so long, reclaiming lives that were too early and cruelly interrupted.