Pedro Almodóvar excavates Spain’s forgotten atrocities with a matrilineal tale of Parallel Mothers

Now in his fifth decade as a filmmaker, Pedro Almodóvar is, amazingly, still pushing new directions in his artform, while staying true to his playful style and provocative roots. The celebrated Spanish auteur most recently made ingenious use of COVID-era limitations to make the short film The Human Voice, a chamber piece starring Tilda Swinton that served as his first project not in his native Spanish. But just because Almodóvar has begun turning his sights beyond Spain, doesn’t mean that he’s done exploring and interrogating his homeland. 

His latest feature, Parallel Mothers, may suggest a familiar variation on his favourite themes – the melancholy melodramas of mothers, women, the queer community and the disenfranchised. And in many ways, it is one his most exquisitely crafted domestic dramas about marginalized Madrileñas. But Parallel Mothers is also jagged with newfound, sharp political edges – ones that combine his penchant for whip smart comedy and vibrant colour palettes with a somber memorial to the victims of forgotten national atrocities.

Set in 2016, the film begins with two women, Janis (Penélope Cruz) and Ana (Milena Smit), who are coincidentally about to give birth in the same hospital room. Both are single and became pregnant by accident. Janis is a middle-aged professional photographer, and she is exultant at the prospect of motherhood. Meanwhile, Ana, an adolescent, is scared, repentant and traumatized from a sexual assault – supported only by her self-absorbed actress mother (Aitana Sánchez-Gijón). Janis tries to encourage her as they take strolls along hospital corridors – and the few words they exchange creates a very close link between the two. A bond which will by chance develop, complicate, and change their lives in unexpected ways.

While the film initially sets itself up as an examination of the peculiar perils of single motherhood, Almodóvar nimbly veers to use multiple generations of matriarchs to bring light to the families irreparably broken by the cruelty of Spain’s former autocratic regime. Janis’ casual fling with her baby daddy, forensic anthropologist Arturo (Israel Elejalde) only began because she sought his assistance in organizing an excavation of a mass grave in her hometown. Janis is looking for the body of her great-grandfather, 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 the scale of the senseless massacre is shocking, it is still considered a point of pride for far-right Spanish conservatives today, while most of the populace remains cagey about the issue, preferring to forget such tragedies. Like many of Almodóvar’s films, Parallel Mothers dramatizes generational divides – and through the motif of matrilineages, he surveys the broader Spanish cultural attitudes through the decades. As Janis pursues her great-grandfather’s exhumation, Ana rudely dismisses her cause as an obsession. Furious at the ignorance of the younger generation, Janis explains that the war hasn’t truly ended if its atrocities go unaccounted for. And the perspectives of their mothers and grandmothers vary as well, shaped by the different political landscapes they grew up in.

In the midst of all this, Parallel Mothers also succeeds at being an exuberant and effervescent arthouse version of a telenovela centered on the psychologically fraught relationship between two women. It’s a film of cascading turns, of thickening complication, of high family drama. In typical Almodóvar fashion, the plot twists kick into soap-operatic insanity – and yet its messy combination of seriousness and salaciousness never goes off the rails. Instead it blazes with giddy finesse, as Almodóvar pulls everything together into an unforgettably poignant and poetic finale.

Part of the film’s engrossing magic is down to the sensual tactility of Almodóvar’s lush lensing and deep-focus photography. Every frame is painterly –  capturing pace, mood and location – alongside simply looking beautiful. But the biggest part of the film’s success hinges upon its two magnificent leads. Cruz’s riveting, empathetic performance makes deeply moving work of even the story’s most ludicrous contortions. Likewise, newcomer Smit embodies a Gen Z defiance that’s both obstinate and admirable. She starts off as a victimized girl, but we see how motherhood recasts her soul, replacing terror with strength and focus. The film’s finest notes are when the two leads play off one another, wordlessly conveying currents of guilt, tenderness, jealousy and desire.

In other hands, a film like Parallel Mothers could have easily been overwrought and messy. In Almodóvar’s, it becomes a transportive and revelatory experience. How can a melodrama about the joys and sufferings of motherhood also be about the historical massacre of hundreds of thousands of innocents? It can, because what Parallel Mothers is truly about is the enduring women who sustain our families across the generations, through unimaginable tragedy and adversity, through absent fathers, to offer comfort and catharsis when we need it most.

Rating: 8/10

Parallel Mothers opens in Singapore on 17th February at Shaw Theatres and The Projector.