Almodóvar examiner Robin Wallis reviews the maestro’s new feature film (avoiding spoilers…).
Until 2021 Almodóvar took pride in making films ‘as if Franco never existed’. “Esa era mi venganza [That was my revenge]”, he recently explained – a way of showing that the dictator’s oppressive, intolerant nationalism had left no enduring mark on Spain.
His new film takes a different tack. Younger generations in Spain are growing up ignorant about the 1939-1975 dictatorship, Almodóvar told a recent interviewer. Hence the emergence of neo-franquista party Vox: “Me pareció que era más necesario que nunca recordar de dónde venimos y contrarrestar el revisionismo de la extrema derecha [I felt it more necessary than ever to remind people where we’ve come from and to push back against the extreme Right’s re-working of history].”
Almodóvar had in fact long pondered making a film that would address Spain’s ‘historical memory’ (ie the tragic legacy of the Franco era, involving torture, murder and disappearances on a massive scale). The 2018 documentary El silencio de otros, which he co-produced, seemed to fulfil that ambition, with its intimate stories of those abused or bereaved by Franco’s regime and their quest for restorative justice in the modern era. Its critique of the compromises of the Transition, such as the pacto del olvido, seemed to settle Almodóvar’s score with el franquismo.
Not so. Madres paralelas, which opened in the UK in late January 2022, reveals that Almodóvar and the dictator have unfinished business.
The spark that ignited the production came when Almodóvar found a way to intertwine two narratives about truth and secrecy, one at a personal level and the other centred on Spain’s historical memory.
Almodóvar devotees are long familiar with the importance of deception – engaño – in his story-telling. In addition to its dramatic potential, Almodóvar has shown how deceit can be a force for good as well as ill: for example, Raimunda concealing Paco’s death in Volver in order to protect her daughter. Engaño resurfaces in Madres paralelas, in which the two characters most committed to revealing the truth about Spain’s past prove to be less than truthful in their own personal lives.
Most of Madres paralelas plays out as an engaño-induced maternal melodrama. “Esta es una película que habla de maternidades distintas [This film looks at different types of motherhood]”, Almodóvar told an interviewer. For him, the protagonist Janis (Penélope Cruz) is “la madre absoluta. Ella sola conforma una unidad familiar, ni siquiera necesita a un hombre a su lado [the epitome of motherhood. She, by herself, alone, constitutes a family unit, with no need for a man alongside her]”.
This theme of strong single-motherhood harks back to Almodóvar’s breakout film Mujeres al borde de un ataque de nervios, and was further developed in Todo sobre mi madre and Volver. If you enjoy the director’s trademark portrayal of unconventional family structures, you will not be disappointed by Madres paralelas.
It is therefore unsurprising that the Madres paralelas maternity unit is a man-free zone, where women help each other through the ordeal of labour. The males responsible for the ‘parallel mother’ pregnancies are too problematic to enter this universo femenino. Not that Almodóvar idealises women characters: as in Todo sobre mi madre, relationships between women present challenges that they must dig deep to overcome.
Typically for Almodóvar’s female protagonists, Janis combines both strength and fragility. Her friend Ana’s mother places her career before the needs of her daughter and duly struggles with a sense of guilt. Almodóvar treats both with his customary empathy. As the critic Marcela Valdés notes, “Nunca castiga a sus protagonistas femeninas por pecar, sino que celebra su resistencia [He never punishes his female characters for doing wrong; rather, he celebrates their fortitude]”. Forgiveness is always an option.
Once the characters’ personal crises are resolved, the melodrama segues into a moral coda focused on la memoria histórica and the quest for what the director calls “la mínima dignidad que cualquier ser humano merece [the most basic sort of dignity that any human being deserves]”.
Almodóvar treads sensitively here: his film is a cri de coeur for the victims and their relatives in their search for closure, but not for retribution. Nonetheless, Janis speaks from the heart about the need to acknowledge Spain’s past (“hasta que no se honre a esos muertos la guerra española sigue ahí [the Civil War continues until the dead are honoured]”); the Rajoy government’s funding-cut for the investigation of mass graves is criticised; and the film closes with novelist Eduardo Galeano’s maxim “Por mucho que se la intente silenciar, la historia humana se niega a callarse la boca [History will not be silenced, however much some may try]”.
Cinematically, the film spins on the symbiotic axis of its director and leading lady. As Janis, Cruz is even more centre-stage in Madres paralelas than she was in Volver. Admirers of the Almodóvar-Cruz nexus will be enchanted: she has never performed better, and if the Oscar goes her way it will be well deserved.
Connoisseurs of Almodóvar’s back catalogue will enjoy being reacquainted with signature elements of his cinema, such as the casting of Cruz and Rossy de Palma. Another such element is his trademark loitering over exuberant Spanish dishes indulgently prepared in a kitchen which, according to Elsa Fernández-Santos of El País, “funciona como el corazón de sus personajes, de largos diálogos, y de mujeres y maternidades heridas [is the heart of the characters’ lives, a place for long discussions and for damaged women and motherhoods]”.
An evocative soundtrack is always a key component of the Almodóvar mix, channelling his audience’s response to events on screen. In Madres paralelas the typically lush cello-based score compensates for the relatively house-bound narrative, imbuing events in Janis’ flat with depths of drama and suspense that they might not otherwise evoke. (The score becomes suitably restrained during the ‘historical memory’ coda.)
Almodóvar comes up with some novel touches too. One such is the way he bonds characters. Thus, the film opens with a daring juxtaposition of male and female protagonists earnestly discussing the grim topic of mass graves while simultaneously conveying sexual desire for each other. Later, when the ‘parallel mothers’ are in the maternity ward, the intimacy of their shared experience suggests their incipient merger into a single consciousness.
Photography is an intriguing leitmotiv in the narrative, and inspires the design of the credits. Janis is a photographer through whose lens deceptive images of celebrities, fashion and even her baby reach a wide audience. By contrast, the excavator’s photographs of mass graves reveal a truth hidden from the world.
The film was warmly welcomed by Almodóvar aficionados as further evidence of his resurgence in recent years. However, it received relatively few nominations for Spain’s annual Goya awards and was passed over as Spain’s Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Film. “Lo vivo como una decepción [I’m disappointed],” Almodóvar told the New York Times. He has reason to be: Madres paralelas was particularly warmly received by US critics – not the first time his work has been better received outside Spain than within. “Presentía que habría una frialdad respecto a la película por parte de la mitad del país, y la atribuyo al tema del que trato: la memoria histórica. A toda una parte de la derecha, la película no le hace ninguna gracia [I suspected that half my country would cold-shoulder the film because of its ‘historical memory’ subject matter. Many on the political right don’t like it at all]”.
Some may argue on cinematic grounds that this film falls short of Almodóvar’s best work. Characters accept rather readily the hyperrealist upheavals that beset them. Filming in lockdown meant concentrating the action in Janis’ flat: the interiors are enlivened by juxtapositions of characters against portraits on the walls, or the use of shadow to generate suspense, but inevitably this does not pack the same visual punch as the range of striking locations used in such classics as Todo sobre mi madre, Hable con ella or Volver.
Nonetheless, Madres paralelas is a captivating new insight into human relationships as seen from Almodóvar’s unique perspective. Professor Carla Marcantonio points out that his characters are always “dotados de un sentido de humanidad [imbued with a sense of humanity]” and his melodramas built on “dilemas éticos que tienen que ver con nuestras relaciones con los demás [ethical dilemmas about our relationships with others]”. To Almodóvar’s credit, his female-centred narratives deliver a coherent and imaginative vision of a world where the decent side of the human psyche overcomes the bad.
For El silencio de otros: see https://bulletinofadvancedspanish.com/can-a-film-change-spain/
For our Almodóvar quiz: use link in menu bar.