Parallel Mothers, 2021
Parallel Mothers (Spain, 2021, 123 min.). Dir.: Pedro Almodóvar. Int.: Penélope Cruz, Milena Smit, Aitana Sanchez-Gijón, Israel Elejalde, Rossy de Palma, Julieta Serrano. DRAMA
It was in My Fair Lady (1964) that Julie Andrews once sang “the rain in Spain mainly falls on the plain”, as if predicting the future (cockney rhymes aside) of the two fair ladies we see on-screen in Parallel Mothers. They really do tell a plain and rambling story. Far from his feminist magnum opus Volver, Almodóvar has sacrificed his iconic style to adhere to an overly ‘woke’ narrative, resulting in visible cohesion problems.
As cynical as the latter may sound, I agree that the end of 2021 is a better time than ever for Almodóvar to deviate from his eccentric storylines and twists and really hit home with one of the many political polemics dividing Spain. Unfortunately, his new political endeavour has proved to be lacking and, quite frankly, tedious in parts.
Let’s commence with what I found to be his biggest incoherence: his “parallel” narratives. His maternal storyline aims to model a new family structure by de-piecing the traditional nuclear family composition that society angelizes. Almodóvar goes on to include a complex romance between the star-crossed mothers, exploring ideas of sexuality and identity. His second narrative concerns the excavation of one of Spain’s many mass graves, often dug and filled with rojo’s in the sombre times of the civil war (1936-39). To contextualise this storyline, the previous right-wing government washed its hands of any state involvement concerning the unearthing of mass graves (despite it being the state that one caused this same brutality) until the drafting of the Ley de memoria democrática by the socialist coalition this year – an initiative that Almodóvar supports in the film. This is a controversy attacked a lot more effectively in the award-winning documentary The Silence of Others, 2019, Almudena Carracedo & Robert Baharproduced by Almodóvar and his brother, which I thoroughly recommend.
On a more positive note, I did like the dialogue between Janis and Anna concerning her rape, which I felt connected the feminist dialogue well to the contrast of Spanish attitudes to its past and the disinterring of mass graves. “You should have reported them, those boys can do the same thing again”. Janis preaches the importance of the victim’s revindication but also the importance of learning from history’s mistakes. “I didn’t want to re-live what happened again and again”. Ana symbolises Spain’s collective trauma and some people’s preference to ‘leave the past in the past’. Other than this short exchange, I found these narratives were more skewed than parallel, with the only thing joining them being the link between life and death, a weak metaphor aiming to give maternity a double meaning: that of the woman, creator of new life, and that of a country, Spain, which is yet to bury its ancestors. I only came to this realisation after reading Fotograma’s surprisingly positive review and found it was a very weak and unworked metaphor to link two very different dialogues.
His pairing of such different subjects as well as their disproportionate screentime (the mass graves only appearing at the start and at the end, and maternity commencing and dominating the screen a medias res) leads to my second problem with Almodóvar’s awry narratives: the weakening of their arguments through their inevitable comparison.
I often find the same type of problem in works which pair such different discourses. A fine example being the controversy of Resnais’ Hiroshima mon amour. Despite the beauty of his cinematography, being asked to make a short documentary about the atomic bomb and contrasting it with a narrative of a French romance during the Nazi occupation screams Occidentalism and carelessly turns the horror of an atomic bomb into a fictional art. Unfortunately again, despite Almodóvar’s beautiful colour palette and mise en scène, I feel the same has happened.
In his Fotogramas interview, Almodovar actually states that maternity is a more important theme to him than remembering history, which left me … baffed. If these two themes coexist through their link of life and death, surely, they should be equal in importance. His clear prioritisation of life over death, and the future over the past in a film which actively propagates unearthing the past left me puzzled for most of the picture. Both ideas were poorly interconnected thematically and hardly intertwined onscreen, the link of Janis conveniently photographing an archaeologist that would later help her unearth a mass grave while being a (very) absent father to her child seemed forced and thus de-valued its impact.
Thankfully it’s not all bad and I did really enjoy various on-screen performances as well as Almodóvar’s inclusion of explicit political messages. Watching the film while living in Spain, I felt they were a slice of real life. The inclusion of Federico Garcia Lorca’s Doña Rosita la Soltera was also a beautifully performed monologue by a prolific Aitana Sanchez-Gijón, and a skilful addition to her character development. Given Penelope Cruz’s outstanding performance as Janis, rightly awarding her with the Volpi Cup for Best Actress among other nominations, we should all listen to when her top says, “we should all be feminists”.
Despite the occasional tedious and over-explanatory monologues, I enjoyed the unconventional feminist family storyline and thought that it was a breath of fresh air. The plot-twist of swapping the babies at birth was a classic Almodovian move which I enjoyed. I felt he found the balance between tension and humour with his dramatic film score and witty dialogue. The mass grave narrative also attacks an important topic in Spanish society and points to the thousands of officially ‘missing’ people brutally killed, piled, and left to rot in various parts of Spain. The last scene, which used an aerial shot to show our protagonists laying lifeless in the mass grave Janis’ ancestors once lied in, was the scene that impacted me the most in the entire film. A powerful last shot and a symbolical juxtaposition of life and death – it is a shame it couldn’t have been more connected to the filmic content.
Overall, I enjoyed each narrative’s topic and really thought they deserved their own elaboration rather than a clumsy melange. This thematic contradiction left me feeling as if Almodóvar was trying to be too politically woke, packing in too many left-wing ideas in the hopes of it having a bigger impact. By the looks of it, it had the opposite effect on me and most of the box-office, it being his least successful screening alongside Julieta (2016) and reaching just over 2.5 million euros compared to Dolor y Gloria’s 6 million. Whether this is due to the disjointed narratives, COVID, his inclusion of controversial topics in Spain or a mix of all three, the fact remains: Parallel Mother’s is far from one of Almodóvar’s chefs-d’oeuvre.