‘Parallel Mothers’: Pedro Almodóvar Casts His Eye on Ghosts of the Spanish Civil War to Powerful Effect

In a sense all lives are a part of history. We live our own intimate experiences while being influenced by events or past memories. Pedro Almodóvar’s “Parallel Mothers” bridges these two truths with a stunning emotional effect. It marks a continued, deepening personalization in Almodóvar’s recent work. For the first time he mixes his melodramatic flare with political questions that have haunted Spain since its return to democracy in the late ‘70s. After the death of fascist dictator Francisco Franco, actually facing the legacy of the Spanish Civil War of the 1930s has been a dangerous, delicate matter. Political pacts ensured a peace based on both sides kind of moving on, without prosecutions. A stark symbol of a society still grappling with the past is the ongoing movement to uncover mass graves to identify those murdered by Franco’s forces. Almodóvar exquisitely digs into this history within one of his recognizable tales of lives thrown upside down.

Janis (Penélope Cruz) is a photographer who meets a forensic anthropologist named Arturo (Israel Elejalde), who has recently specialized in finding Franco’s mass graves and identifying victims. Janis has a particular interest in his field because her village has been fighting to uncover the site where several relatives, including her great-grandfather, were most likely executed after being taken away by fascist troops. What happens first is that Janis and Arturo sleep together and Janis gets pregnant. She makes a firm decision to raise the baby on her own. While giving birth at the hospital, Janis meets Ana (Milena Smit), a younger woman who is also in labor. They practically give birth at the same time. Soon after, Janis finds Ana working as a waitress and they strike a friendship. But when Ana tells the sad story of how she became pregnant and Janis begins dabbling in DNA tests, Janis begins to uncover secrets with grave implications for them both.

Long acknowledged as one of the world’s great directors, Pedro Almodóvar is still finding impressive new dramatic territory. His 2019 film “Pain and Glory” was an autobiographical work full of the dreamlike power of memory. During the early months of the pandemic he took a break to make a 30-minute Cocteau adaptation, “The Human Voice,” that felt like a brief return to his colorful, melodramatic opuses. “Parallel Mothers” is something fully Almodóvar yet infused with the feeling of a historical reckoning. When Janis decides to do a DNA test on her baby and makes a stunning discovery, it leads her on a road that soon clashes with Ana’s own life. Ana became pregnant as the result of a rape for which no one was ever prosecuted. What Janis finds, along with an ensuing dilemma about how much to tell Ana, is part of the powerful nature of the film’s title. They are parallel mothers that also embody some of the divisions within Spain itself. Janis, named after Janis Joplin by hippie parents, is an independent-minded woman raised by her grandmother, who takes seriously the legacy of the Spanish Civil War. Ana was raised by a pro-fascist father who, she reveals, dismisses any need to revisit the past. Her mother, Teresa (Aitana Sánchez-Gijón), is an actor too caught up in her own career. Ana has been abused and also left without any sense of history.

Because this is an Almodóvar movie, there is passion and desire coursing through its frames as well. Confessions or statements are whispered or told in dramatic rushes, as if all life were a grand drama. Ana and Janis become lovers, in an attraction that grows out of need. Arturo also loves Janis in his own way as well. He respects her decision to be a single mother but is still there to help her find answers to her family’s questions concerning Franco’s mass graves. It’s an example of how in Almodóvar films adults are actual grown-ups devoid of American drama clichés. They have affairs, scheme and plot, but they don’t follow Hollywood screenwriting plot guides. The tension in the melodrama comes from more urgent moral questions about the kind of secrets one should tell. If Janis discovers a painful truth about Ana’s own pregnancy, even after time has passed, should she say it? In that sense, how often must Spain revisit the lingering scars of the civil war? Like El Salvador, Syria or even the United States, a civil war leaves deep divisions that take forever to truly heal and consciously, as well as subconsciously, infect the lives of future generations. A conversation between Janis and Ana can suddenly become heated when the younger woman repeats her father’s ignorant political opinions. We sense Janis feels the pressure of keeping a secret from Ana as she feels Spanish society is keeping the truth from families searching for the long dead.

“Parallel Mothers” is a work by a director fully in command of his technique. The writing crackles and hurtles forward with intricate depth and suspense. Almodóvar knows how to edit scenes of pure dialogue or the search for answers online with the riveting force of action films. Penélope Cruz, turned into an action movie typecast in the United States, delivers a performance of such strength and empathy that it shames what other actors do here in “thrillers.” Milena Smit is scared but also naïve, like a person who has endured some real street experience but still has much to learn about life’s deeper meanings. .Although still growing as a storyteller, Almodóvar brings back some of his favorites like the always glamorous Rossy de Palma as Janis’s magazine editor. 

In a master stroke, all of the drama, secrets and desires of the story culminate in one of the most powerful final acts of any Almodóvar film. He bridges all the themes and characters into a final uncovering of a mass grave that not only serves as a striking political statement, but a very human one as well. Despite all of our microcosmic, personal affairs, each of our lives is fragile in its own way. As the last two years have demonstrated, the world can change in a blink and those we know today can be gone tomorrow. For Janis’s family, as well as countless real lives linked to the Spanish Civil War, their family trees are full of names suddenly taken away by powers out of their control. Their descendants continue being victims of history, in the same way Janis’s own baby will also carry on whatever history she passes on from her time with Ana.  There are no “villains” or “heroes” in this story, just people living through choices, both good and questionable, but without becoming shallow. How Almodóvar threads all this together is the work of a great artist making something truly transcendental. 

Parallel Mothers” releases Dec. 24 in select theaters.