Pedro Almodóvar’s films have long focused on marginalized individuals—the disenfranchised, the abused, the neglected. However, these stories have been far from melancholy tragedies. Injecting a uniquely Spanish sense of self-effacing humor (and plenty of primary colors), Almodóvar gives his protagonists power by allowing them to assert themselves in a world that continually attempts to relegate them to the fringes. With Parallel Mothers, his 22nd feature film, the 72-year-old filmmaker continues to advocate for the oppressed—this time, the victims of Spanish national atrocities. While the film contains hints of Almodóvar’s penchant for whip-quick comedy and cohesive color pallets, it translates the somber sentiment of Spain’s cultural amnesia, culminating in an unexpectedly devastating emotional climax.
Set in 2016, Parallel Mothers follows Janice (Penélope Cruz), a professional photographer in her 40s who begins a casual fling with forensic anthropologist Arturo (Israel Elejalde). Nine months after a particularly steamy encounter, she checks herself into a Madrid hospital’s maternity ward, preparing to give birth and raise her child as a single mother. As fate would have it, her roommate is in a similar position, save for the fact that she’s over 20 years Janice’s junior: Ana (newcomer Milena Smit) is also without a partner, her only support during labor being her self-absorbed actress mother (Aitana Sánchez-Gijón). While Janice is thrilled that she’s been given the impromptu opportunity to become a mother, Ana is initially resentful of the circumstances that have led to her pregnancy. Yet the two women quickly bond, taking strolls down the sterile hospital halls in order to help their babies descend down the uterus. Coincidentally, they both give birth to beautiful baby girls, and exchange numbers in order to keep in touch as they embark on the journey of newfound motherhood.
Though the film sets itself up as an straightforward examination of the peculiar perils of parenthood—particularly for women who raise children outside of the confines of conventional, heterosexual nuclear families—Almodóvar instead utilizes multiple generations of matriarchs to bring light to the families irreparably broken by the cruelty of Spain’s not-so-distant fascist regime. The initial reason why Janice approaches Arturo is to inquire if he could use his connections to organize an excavation of a mass grave in her hometown—one of the bodies buried being that of her great-grandfather.
He is only one of an estimated 114,226 citizens who fell victim to the violent anti-communist persecution of the Spanish Civil War, a fascist uprising that eventually led to Francisco Franco’s nearly 40-year reign, from 1936 until his death in 1975. Though an astonishingly high figure, the exact number of “disappeared” (citizens who were forcibly abducted, tortured and murdered by paramilitary forces) people is difficult to discern, primarily due to the numerous unmarked pits they were killed and buried in. In some cases, mausoleums were built in order to serve as a sick testament to the far-right’s barbarism: One such site on the outskirts of Madrid, The Valley of the Fallen, contains the remains of 33,000 victims of this period of fascist rule. Though repugnant in its scale of senseless massacre, it is considered a point of pride for conservatives, particularly because Franco’s own body was properly entombed in this site—continuing to trample on the dignity of tens of thousands of innocents even in death. Though his body was eventually removed by the Socialist government in 2019, which subsequently ordered earlier this year that The Valley of the Fallen begin an exhumation process, there lingers a wavering caginess among much of the Spanish populace regarding the issue.
Many of Almodóvar’s films highlight generational spats and contrasts. While Parallel Mothers sticks to his motif of interrogating intra-generational matrilineages, these characters also exist as a survey of broader Spanish cultural attitudes. Janice doggedly pursues the case of her great-grandfather’s exhumation, which Ana rudely dismisses as “obsessive” in nature. Furious at the ignorance of the younger generation, Janice explains that the war hasn’t truly ended if its atrocities go unaccounted for. Janice was raised by her grandmother—her executed great-grandfather’s daughter—who lived during the Civil War and Franco’s rule. Janice’s own mother was a “hippie” who entered adulthood in the immediate aftermath of Franco’s death, taking advantage of the creative renaissance that followed by pursuing artistic passions. If she was not raised by her grandmother, who recalled the war and lived most of her life under dictatorship, Janice might not have become such an ardent proponent for her great-grandfather’s cause. Conversely, Ana was raised by an “apolitical” (often a dog whistle for indifference toward injustice) actress mother—and was thus never instilled with a sense of indignance for her country’s past evils.
In many ways, Parallel Mothers is also an atonement on Almodóvar’s part for his own distancing from this period of Spain’s history, particularly considering that his own film career flourished after Franco’s decline. Though he was initially pushed out of film school after Franco’s regime shuttered his institution in the early ‘70s, he nonetheless rose to prominence during La Movida Madrileña, an artistic boom that relished in the rise of democracy. As opposed to addressing the decades of suppression that gripped the nation, many artists chose to focus on long-awaited freedoms of self-expression (one of Almodóvar’s earliest films, Fuck… Fuck… Fuck Me, Tim!, exemplifies this frenzied dash to exhibit sexual provocations). Perhaps with the recent government initiatives to finally address the victims of the Civil War and Franco’s reign, Almodóvar at last felt it was vital that he address Spain’s long-standing lack of commitment to condemning its bloody past.
For a director who has never shied away from portraying society’s most controversial taboos on-screen—incest, rape, suicide attempts, pedophilia and even golden showers—the fact that it has taken him his entire career to explicitly incorporate the effects of the Spanish Civil War into his work demonstrates the country’s relative inability to reckon with it. Though Almodóvar has stated that none of his own family members were victims of fascist brutality, his dedication to the ongoing plight of the families of those who perished infuses the film with an almost uncharacteristic sense of levity and sorrow. While this is certainly a shift in the filmmaker’s melodramatic and outlandish sensibilities (though this has been shifting significantly since his 2019 semi-autobiographical Pain and Glory, followed by the deconstructive short The Human Voice), it never feels mishandled in his grasp, always remaining sensitive even while incorporating shocking twists and revelations. Particularly paired with Cruz’s knockout performance of a woman whose life endures the legacy left by the trauma of her family’s unresolved past, Parallel Mothers is a deeply political example of what is lost when we have forgotten—and what is achieved when we fight to remember.
Director: Pedro Almodóvar
Writers: Pedro Almodóvar
Stars: Penélope Cruz, Milena Smit, Israel Elejalde, Rossy de Palma, Aitana Sánchez-Gijón
Release Date: December 24, 2021 (Sony Pictures Classics)
Natalia Keogan is a freelance film writer based in Queens, New York. Her work has been featured in Paste Magazine, Blood Knife Magazine and Filmmaker Magazine, among others. Find her on Twitter @nataliakeogan