It is no revelation that Pedro Almodóvar is a modern master of the melodrama genre and he is returned with a new tale belonging to the same domain. Titled Parallel Mothers, Almodóvar’s latest film is a follow-up to one of the most celebrated accomplishments of his career – the 2019 masterpiece Pain and Glory which was universally acknowledged to be one of the best cinematic gems of the last decade.
Featuring Almodóvar’s regular collaborator Penélope Cruz as a photographer, Parallel Mothers is a layered story about memory, collective history, motherhood, love and the depths of human friendship. If that rings a bell, it is because similar subjects were also explored by another notable 2021 production – Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Memoria. While the Thai master investigated the same questions through surrealism and magical realism, Almodóvar weaponises the familiar territory of family.
Cruz is fantastic as always in the role of Janis (named after the iconic rockstar), a woman who cares very deeply about the careful excavation of her great-grandfather’s grave – the site of his execution by the Falangists during the Spanish Civil War. However, the authorities aren’t really concerned until Arturo – a forensic anthropologist – comes to her aid (Israel Elejalde) and they end up falling in love despite the fact that he is married to a woman who is undergoing chemotherapy.
Almodóvar grabs our hand and takes us into the narrative terrain that he has mastered, a landscape that is littered with emotional landmines and one complication after another. Although Janis gets accidentally pregnant during her affair, she decides to carry through with the pregnancy and befriends a young girl named Ana (Milena Smit) in the maternity ward who is also going through the same thing and, unlike Janis, she regrets the pregnancy because she was blackmailed and raped.
At first, it seems like Almodóvar’s melodrama is as predictable as they come with the incorporation of clichés such as a mix-up with the infants at the hospital, a rebellion against neglectful parenting, the death of one of those children and an investigation of the definition of motherhood itself along the lines of the ‘nature vs nurture’ debate. As things progress, however, the master auteur manages to salvage the film by contextualising these banal questions within a greater historical framework.
While the developments (romantic or otherwise) in the relationship that Janis and Ana share are obviously foregrounded due to the demands of the genre, the subtext of Parallel Mothers is far more interesting. That subtextual commentary is directed towards the terrible legacy of Francisco Franco’s rule over Spain and the countless people who died. Hundreds of thousands of civilians were killed and buried in mass graves, with few remaining to identify the remains today.
“What you can’t do is ask people to forget,” Almodóvar explained. “The families of victims of the civil war will never forget them. Remembering is part of the soul of who we are.” That’s exactly why Parallel Mothers‘ cinematic journey becomes so poignant; it manages to tie the pedantic themes of motherhood and love into the powerful fabric of historical trauma. In a completely anti-natalist climate, Almodóvar paints the moment of childbirth as a political act intended to propagate the memories of familial love and horror.