Pedro Almodóvar’s latest film Parallel Mothers (Spanish: Madres Paralelas) is yet another testament to his complex storytelling. It weaves the legacy of General Franco’s brutal dictatorship during the Spanish Civil War with the lives of contemporary women in affluent and fashionable Madrid, capturing the shifts in identity entailed by motherhood. Almodóvar, a gay man, has for over four decades created strong leading roles for women. In this film he excels again in foregrounding the complexity of women’s experience without schmaltzy sentimentality.
In my university days, I was convinced Matador (1986) was the best film of all time. I revisited Law of Desire (1987) and The Skin I live In (2011) during the first Melbourne lockdown in 2020, experiencing the creative force behind complex events propelled by eros (desire) and (thanatos) death, towards an all-encompassing finale. With Parallel Mothers, Almodóvar once again demonstrates his deftness setting in train disparate themes and reaching catharsis through rich visual tropes and without cliché. Who else can juxtapose birth, death and the investigation of women’s post-feminist identity with the materiality of saliva and the exhumation of lost bones?
Parallel Mothers presents archetypal women’s experiences and links these to history. For instance, a scene in which Teresa (Aitana Sánchez-Gijón) is rehearsing Federico Garcia Lorca’s (1898-1936) “Doña Rosita the Spinster”. The sacrifice of a middle-aged actress who has “abandoned” her daughter to pursue a stage career is threaded with the fate that befell the play-writer, for Lorca was murdered by Franco’s Nationalists forces at the beginning of the Spanish Civil War. His remains have never been found.
Sharing a cinematic tradition shaped by Luis Buñuel (1900-1983), an early and prodigious cinema pioneer, Almodóvar cuts and pastes cinematic time as a montage master does to atmosphere and mood. His cinema is rich and titillating. His colour palette is saturated and geometrical, his set designs exemplars of composition and perspective. Each frame is laced with kitsch pop-surrealism and Spain’s rich architectural and artistic past.
Very few contemporary directors create such melodramatic explorations of cinematic form that interrogate gender, subjectivity, and the historical record with the tensions inherent in the camera’s gaze. The camera and the photograph are the tools of today’s mass media. They have long served mass consumerism, constructing identity through high artifice into the fetishized consumer good.
The film becomes a meditation on photography
(and by extension cinema as the moving image) , asking the questions: How do we persevere in the face of overwhelming loss and grief? How do we anchor identity when its presence is displaced or lost? Portraits of Spanish civil war resistance fighters appear throughout the film, demanding recognition of the serious violations inflicted on them.
We get to understand that photography is not only an instrument of creation or identity but ultimately a memento mori, which captures and legitimises as a testament to posterity all those moments between birth and death. The photograph re-presents historical trauma in a society with a cultural tendency towards forgetting. The photograph, analogue or digital, demands that the dead be remembered, found, exhumed, mourned and with proper burial put to rest.
Exorcising the demons of Franco’s legacy haunting the Spanish imagination in cinema is not an easy task. Its relevance may not be immediately obvious to an audience which struggles to remember history.
The film’s narrative follows the twists and turns of two women in the post-feminist era from the maternity ward to a mass grave. The viewer experiences the pleasure and pain of childbirth and nurturing, withstanding loss and grief, whilst simultaneously juggling career expectations in a society that in its infinite warmongering has always been overwhelmingly one without men. Almodóvar represents the triumph of the creative spirit, of women and cinema as avengers, exalting the human spirit over injustice and death.
Koulla Roussos 3/2/22