At first glance of the promotional poster for Spanish director Pedro Almodóvar’s 2021 film ‘Parallel Mothers’, I was struck by the brazenness of the image. In true Almodóvar style, the story of motherhood is represented through the iconic image of a nipple lactating, an image so often used with sexual connotation is instead repositioned as a symbol of motherhood (though, Instagram still felt the need to have the image removed, later apologising after public backlash). Almodóvar is a director known for his narratives centring on women and queer stories. As is in ‘Parallel Mothers’, his female characters are bold and independent. Visually and narratively his work can be described as camp melodrama, with a strong influence and perhaps update to Douglas Sirk’s melodramas which explored the position of women in conservative 50s society in an understated style.
Upon further inspection of the poster and after viewing the film, I noticed another way the image can be read. The oval shape of the nipple and the single drop of milk looks unmistakably like an eye shedding a single tear. This film is about loss, grief, and the parallel disavowal of two mothers – Spain as a nation and Penélope Cruz’s Janis (who has earned a best actress Oscar nomination for her performance).
Credit - AlloCiné
‘Parallel Mothers’ follows the independent and wilful Janis, a photographer who becomes pregnant after a one-night stand with forensic archaeologist Arturo (Israel Elejalde), who she asks to excavate the unmarked mass grave in her home village where her great grandfather and other men were killed during the Spanish Civil War. Deciding to go ahead with the pregnancy as a single mother, she meets Ana (Milena Smit) in the maternity ward, a teenager who is another soon to be single mother. From here, the film’s primary focus seems to be on the two women who give birth on the same day.
Some viewers might think that the political aspect of the film takes a backseat to the melodramatic dynamic of the rapidly evolving relationship between the two mothers. Recently in Spain though, the legacy of the Spanish Civil War and General Franco’s dictatorship are at the forefront of public discourse due to new legislation surrounding the excavation of unmarked mass graves. The war lasted from 1936 to 1939, and the two sides each included a wide array of political players and ideologies, though could be summed up as the left leaning Republican government in alliance with communist groups, versus the Nationalists, an alliance including fascists, monarchists, and conservatives. There were also a considerable number of foreign volunteers including George Orwell who would go on to write a novel about his time in Homage to Catalonia (1938). The war ended with a defeat to democracy, giving rise to Franco’s dictatorship. The death toll is estimated to be anywhere between five hundred thousand and two million.
An unknown amount of people in an unknown amount of mass graves lay dotted around the country, the largest containing over thirty-three thousand people. New legislation proposed would increase support and funding to identify and excavate the remains through DNA. The country remains bitterly divided however, with conservatives arguing this is an unnecessary re-opening of old wounds.
Credit - AlloCiné
This dynamic of a “pact of forgetting” can be seen in the relationship between Janis and Ana. Janis suspects the baby she has been caring for may not be hers. In a classic plot twist, Janis uses DNA testing to confirm that the two mothers had their baby swapped at birth. But when she finds out that her biological child (the daughter Ana has been caring for) has died from cot death, she cannot bring herself to reveal the truth to Ana and continues to live in denial as the two enter a sexual relationship whilst both caring for the remaining daughter. What follows is a complex portrait of disavowal, guilt, and Janis’s grief at the loss of not one, but two daughters.
In a key sequence in the film, Janis explodes at Ana’s ill-considered repeating of her father’s right wing political opinions, that the unmarked graves should be left alone as it's better to leave history buried. After this moment there is a recognition of her own disavowal, and she finds the courage to reveal the truth to Ana.
Janis’s home village is haunted by the legacy of the men that were taken from their homes and families, ordered to dig their own graves, then shot and executed. Almodóvar approaches the topic with sensitivity, as the elder relatives describe their last memories of the men and the day they were taken. In describing the individual personalities, quirks, and items the men may have had on them when they were taken, Almodóvar works to humanise and pay respect to the victims and families. They are more than just the cluster of bones that lay piled somewhere in a field. Each of the women’s tender descriptions is a testament to the generational trauma that would go unresolved without proper acknowledgement and burial.
There are a variety of many different female characters. Ana as a teen mother and victim of gang rape, her mother Teresa (Aitana Sánchez-Gijón) who was never able to chase her dream career when she became a wife and mother. Janis, who comes from a lineage of single mothers, perhaps a direct consequence of the war which deprived the families and women in the village of the men. There are many reasons why women choose to become mothers, single mothers or never have kids, and Almodóvar approaches this diversity with respect and subtlety (ironically as his entire filmography and style is very camp and exaggerated).
The use of DNA testing in both the melodramatic and political arc is important to note here, as well as the fact that Janis is a photographer, someone who is able to document and reveal truths through art. Almodóvar’s message here advocates for confronting the past, as only then can we find closure and build new relationships and democracies in the present and future. Leaving history unknown and buried will not teach Spain anything. In the powerful final shot of the excavated grave, Almodóvar replaces the bones with real actors playing bodies in a humanising moment that makes clear the immense loss of life that took place.
The film ends with a quote from journalist Eduardo Galeano:
“No history is mute. No matter how much they burn it, no matter how much they break it, no matter how much they lie about it, human history refuses to shut its mouth.”
Edited by Saffron Brown Davis, Film & TV Editor