By Remy A. Renault
Pedro Almodóvar’s latest effort Parallel Mothers (Madres Paralelas) may not be his most memorable work, and I admit to preferring both his more absurdist and tragic films to those that tend toward melodrama, Mothers clearly falling into that last category, but the material would not demand it to be anything else. The one tragic event within the film’s timeline mainly serves as a catalyst for a deepening emotional bond between the titular parallel mothers. The director’s attempt to take his familiar themes of regret and desire and concretely historicize them within the context of Spain’s still unhealed political wounds, or more precisely its historical amnesia, may feel didactic and even maudlin at times, but then a general turn in his last few films from a gentle insanity, which I believe reached its apex for him with the admittedly less-celebrated The Skin I Live In (2011), to a general sense of wistfulness is possibly indicative of the shifting concerns of a filmmaker beset by regrets and what-ifs of his own as he reaches the twilight of his career. With that in mind, it’s possible what I initially perceive as maudlin may just be illustrative of the more stately qualities one encounters in a late-career work.
As always in his films, demons, both personal and historic, are excavated against the backdrop of flamboyantly decorated interiors, bursting with Pop Art-redolent primary colors, and even as he’s been forced to switch from celluloid to digital photography these last few years, due to a dearth of developing labs in his native Spain, Almodóvar hasn’t shown any signs of modifying his visual palette, which has remained more or less consistent over the years, regardless of the genre in which he’s operating. One could almost accuse his recent features of being derivative of earlier efforts, or of at least toning down the pathos while recycling his more cosmetic attributes. Almodóvar is a filmmaker vulnerable to being accused of style over substance, and that may be due to his extravagant set designs and employment of color having no other conceivable purpose than to beautify his films. However, such aesthetic choices may also merely serve to reflect the romantic yearnings of the Mediterranean soul, nebulous as a term like ‘soul’ is. His recent short film The Human Voice (2020), starring Tilda Swinton, is even set on a sound stage made to resemble the pristinely decorated Pop Art-influenced interiors we’ve come to associate with his films and in which no middle-class Spaniard could ever conceivably afford to reside. This then may be a confession on his part that the environments inhabited by his characters were never intended to be an accurate reflection of Spanish life, a film like Live Flesh (1997) which confronts working class destitution head-on notwithstanding. A film’s décor can just as readily reflect the anxieties, fantasies, and general state of mind of its characters as it can their actual material circumstances. It can also reflect the obsessions and fetishes of its maker. Almodóvar, incidentally, lives in a spacious apartment in central Madrid decorated in a manner not unlike that of his film sets. The apartment in which Antonio Banderas’s character in Pain and Glory (2019) lives is even designed to resemble the director’s own dwelling.
All of his films deal in some fashion with the specter of Francoism haunting contemporary Spanish society, whether that manifests itself as an overall sense of melancholy, the source of which can’t quite be articulated, or in a more direct manner by making historical scars a central plot point, which is the case with Mothers. Janis Martinez, a middle-aged but still sexually magnetic woman portrayed by Penelope Cruz, is a professional photographer who is hired at the start of the film to photograph a prominent archaeologist, named Arturo, with whom she quickly develops a sexual relationship. Arturo is affiliated with the Association for the Recovery of Historical Memory, a real organization in Spain that oversees exhumation and gathers information about those who went missing during Franco’s regime. In the early stages of their courtship she requests their assistance with the excavation of the remains of her great grand-father and nine other anti-Francoists who were buried in a pit outside her childhood village during the Spanish Civil War. Arturo agrees to help despite a lack of subsidies from the Spanish government, but the archaeological project is seemingly put in jeopardy when an unexpected pregnancy complicates their personal relationship.
Parallel to the plot concerning the archaeological dig and its romantic entanglements is the story of the titular parallel mothers, Janis and the teenage Ana Manso Ferreras (Milena Smit), who meet while sharing a room in a maternity ward where they give birth on the same day. When their newborns are then both placed under observation, an intimate bond quickly develops with Ana increasingly pushed into the arms of Janis by her estrangement from her emotionally unavailable parents. Ana’s mother, a friendly-on-the-surface but ultimately self-absorbed stage actress, abandons her daughter in favor of her career commitments just when she needs her most, upon giving birth to a child. In the wake of both personal tragedy and emotional turmoil Ana leaves home and ends up working at a café in the vicinity of Janis’ apartment, which leads to their reunion. Ana then moves in with Janis, the latter offering her to be a live-in maid. This sets the scene for a clash of generations as well as a traumatizing revelation that will permanently rupture their eventual sexual intimacy.
Every substantial relationship in the film seems to follow a pattern of intimacy followed by estrangement, followed again by potential intimacy. This perhaps reflects the dual yearnings of Spanish society to both right the wrongs of its politically troublesome past and simply leave them in the past in the name of national unity, the latter impulse even reflected in its controversial 1977 Amnesty Law, which is still in effect. In one scene, the two mothers separated by a kitchen island have an exchange regarding the archaeological dig during which Ana complains Janis is “obsessed with that grave”. Janis counters by saying “no one in your family has told you the truth about this country”. Despite the parallels of their maternal experiences, this serves to highlight their incongruences just as Spain displays incongruent attitudes regarding its past.
Douglas Sirk is the most commonly cited antecedent whenever cinematic melodrama is discussed, although the influence of Hitchcock may be more immediately apparent in Almodóvar’s work from the almost geometric precision of his mise-en-scène with nothing appearing in the frame by accident to his preoccupation with intrigue and mystery. The echoes of Sirk, however, I think still reveal themselves in his tendency to veer towards emotional catharsis, and Penelope Cruz sparkles as her Janis reaches an emotional release of her own, palpably expressed through facial and bodily expressions rather than words as her dilemmas reach a satisfying if permanently scarring denouement.
Manu Yáñez Murillo, ‘Secrets and Lies’, Film Comment, October 18, 2021, https://www.filmcomment.com/blog/secrets-and-lies-parallel-mothers-pedro-almodovar/.
 Rachel Wallace, ‘Pedro Almodóvar Basically Re-created His Own Home for Pain and Glory’, Architectural Digest, October 3, 2019, https://www.architecturaldigest.com/story/pedro-almodovar-home-pain-and-glory-set-design-interview.
 Anthony Lane, ‘Cradles and Graves in Pedro Almodóvar’s “Parallel Mothers”’, The New Yorker, January 3 & 10, 2022 Issue, https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2022/01/03/cradles-and-graves-in-pedro-almodovars-parallel-mothers.
 Anthony Hawley, ‘Alchemical Melodrama : Pedro Almodóvar’s “Parallel Mothers”’, Notebook, Mubi, January 17, 2022, https://mubi.com/notebook/posts/alchemical-melodrama-pedro-almodovar-s-parallel-mothers.