Pedro Almodovar’s latest is his boldest to date
Pedro Almodóvar’s first batch of films during the Spanish cultural movement of “La Movida” sought to be a-historical after the brutal dictatorship of Francisco Franco. His 80s films were thus escapist and bonkers stories that transported viewers into Almodóvar’s own fantasy worlds. However, as the Spanish auteur grew older his reflection of the past became an inevitable part of his journey. His films in the late 90s and early 2000s began to reflect that, and they all seem to have culminated in the director’s latest: Parallel Mothers (2021).
Parallel Mothers is the typical Sirkian drama adapted to Almodóvar’s own mold of filmmaking. We follow two mothers, the photography Janis (Penelope Cruz) and the teenage Ana (Milena Smit) who are both single mothers in the same maternity ward. However, as luck would have it, their lives become more intrinsically linked than they expect, leading Janis, who uncovers secrets regarding their relationship, to undergo a dilemma of destroying her own comfort in the sake of the truth.
Almodóvar has been on the periphery of commenting directly on Spanish history and the Franco dictatorship in his previous films. Previous works have condemned the religiosity that was strictly imposed in early education during the dictatorship years, and the trauma that it left on its characters even in the modern Spanish world. However, Almodóvar has never been as direct with his historical commentary as with Parallel Mothers. Along with the characters’ own melodramatic arcs, Janis also employs the father of her daughter Arturo (Israel Elejalde), an archeologist, to dig up the suspected mass grave where her grandfather was executed and buried.
Due to a series of “pacts of forgetting” in the 1970s transition from dictatorship to democracy, the accountability and even historical cataloguing of the horrors of the dictatorship was swept under the rug. This was somewhat reformed under a Historical Memory law in 2007, and Almodóvar seeks to show how necessary this type of closure and truth are to healing and sanity. In this way, the parallelisms between the characters’ journey with their daughters in the film and the need to literally dig up the horrors of the past dance beautifully together. However, Almodóvar is able to bring about added layers of complexity to Parallel Mothers, by having our audience surrogate, Janis be flip flopping on the benefits of staying silent or speaking out, bringing us into the debate the Spanish public has been having for the past nearly fifty years.
As with all of Almodóvar’s films, the attention to production design, humor, and aesthetic is as contagious as ever. It is hard not to envy the characters of Almodóvar’s films, who get to live in his colorful worlds. Almodóvar weaves his signature melodramatic structure with a more subtle form of commentary and dark dramatic moments in a careful balance within Parallel Mothers. It is the risky equilibrium with this tongue-in-cheek structure that helped him deliver his best films in the past such as Volver (2006) and All About My Mother (1999).
Bringing back frequent muse, Penelope Cruz, Almodóvar wrangles one of the best performances in her entire career. Cruz is forced to open her heart and become incredibly vulnerable and conflicted in Parallel Mothers, something that she’d been typecast against in the latter stages of her career. Cruz boldly takes on Janis, with an empathy that makes what on paper could have been a problematic character, the most enrapturing on screen. Smit is also quite the revelation, as the stand-in for the younger Spanish generations, who appear clueless as to the traumas of the recent past, and yet are tempted (much as the young Almodóvar was) to want to forget it all and move on. Yet, Almodóvar convinces us with his argument in Parallel Mothers, that it is impossible to move on if the burden of a hidden history is left on your shoulders.
Parallel Mothers is one of the riskiest films Almodóvar has made to date, especially considering how taboo of a subject historical memory still is in Spain. Yet, this is the kind of provocative and necessary art that Almodóvar has become renowned and applauded for. Combined with an expert use of balancing structure and character conflict, Parallel Mothers becomes one Almodóvar’s best films, in league with All About My Mother and Volver.