Parallel Mothers examines the macro-distinction between leaving behind and moving on, deleting and forgetting, trauma and remembering, and most importantly, cultural progression and social closure
One could assume that pain and glory was Pedro Almodovar’s most personal film. The 70-year-old Spanish director drew inspiration from his own life to paint the self-reflective portrait of a gay storyteller enslaved by the mortality of his own story. Again, Parallel mothers, Almodovar’s latest, is equally personal. At first glance, the story of the intertwined destinies of two single mothers in today’s Madrid may seem unrelated to the filmmaker’s being. But the roots are deeper than the rot. As the film unfolds, it appears that the narrative is based on the relationship between the foreground – featuring these two women caught in a baby-swap melodrama – and the background, with the excavation of a mass grave from the Spanish Civil War. The mothers’ story becomes a parable of the director’s – and by extension, the nation’s – conflicted relationship with his fascist past.
Parallel mothers opens with a 40-year-old photographer, Janis (Penelope Cruz), doing a photoshoot with a forensic anthropologist named Arturo (Israel Elejalde). She asks if he can help her in her quest to retrieve her great-grandfather’s remains from his ancestral village – the man, like thousands of others, was abducted by Falangist militants at night, forced to dig his own grave and then buried in it. Arturo agrees to present his case to his foundation. This conversation is fleeting, however, in terms of the film’s timeline. Just ten minutes and a love scene later, Janis gives birth at exactly the same time as her roommate in the hospital, a teenage girl named Ana (a magical Milena Smit). Unlike Ana, Janis embraced her accidental pregnancy, determined to be a single mother in keeping with her family’s long tradition. Her feminism — like her newborn, Cecilia — is alive and well. She also dismissed Arturo’s involvement. They go their own way until one day Arturo visits the baby, whose ethnic “look” raises doubts about his parentage.
The film here turns into a sort of suspenseful domestic drama. Janis’ femininity finds itself stuck at the intersection of morality and self-preservation. When she realizes that Cecilia may not be hers – due to an institutional failure posing as a hospital blunder – the first thing she does is change her phone number. It breaks all ties with its immediate history. Denial takes over; ignoring the truth may make it go away. Until, of course, Janis meets Ana and her new haircut. Despite the director’s typically soapy treatment, Parallel mothers resists becoming the movie we think it is. Sometimes he resists turning into any movie. Janis hires Ana as a nanny, and that’s when the domestic drama turns into something much more pragmatic and honest – eschewing storytelling gimmicks in favor of historical gravity. Janis isn’t actually as intriguing as her decision made her seem; Ana is not as emotionally unintelligent as her darkness made her seem. One could criticize the film for diffusing the tension to get out of the red herrings, but the real complexity of Parallel mothers only appears to us in its home stretch. Suddenly we realize that the trials and tribulations of motherhood – so precisely designed by Almodovar – testify to the troubled evolution of Spanish democracy.
Through Janis and Ana’s micro-experience, the film examines the macro-distinction between leaving behind and moving on, deleting and forgetting, trauma and remembering, and above all, cultural progression and social closure.
Parallels are not easy to find. Millions of Spanish citizens were conditioned by the Forgetting Pact (and subsequent Amnesty Law) to avoid directly confronting the atrocities of Francisco Franco’s regime. The graves were not marked; the “disappearance” of the victims was not addressed. The pact – which guaranteed there would be no persecution or recognition of crimes committed during his 36-year dictatorship – was a misguided attempt to make a smooth transition from autocracy to democracy in 1975. equivalent of the pact in Parallel mothers it’s Janis (named after 60s singer Janis Joplin) who changes her number and wants the “error” to go away. This is when the foreground is always a direct reflection of the background. Arturo, too, is a version of the Arturo from Money theft: a married man who impregnates a woman and remains absent. Once Janis invited Ana into her life, it’s no coincidence that the foundation approves her request to excavate the mass grave – and the remains of her ancestor. His change of heart is tied to a nation’s change of approach.
Just as Janis deals with the mess resulting from institutional failure – and as Ana deals with her own difficult past – the village of Janis finds access to its own difficult history. What happened to their ancestors is no longer a secret, just as Cecilia’s identity can no longer be a secret. It should be noted that Arturo, the digger, is actually a symbol of the Historical Memory Law, which recognizes the rights of the oppressed; her role in Janis’ life is not negative but necessary. In other words, Janis’ actions as a mother go hand in hand with Spain’s conflicted adulthood.
The connection is not distant but deep, as Almodovar’s genre-fluid craft and Penelope Cruz’s superbly measured performance suggest. Her portrayal of Janis — who swings between aggressive tropes of independence — raises some tough questions about feminism and its automatic connection to (single) motherhood. Her ancestors were not single mothers on their own terms, nor was Ana’s mother, who abandons her teenage daughter to pursue her own ambitions of an acting career. Agency and growth play a big role in reading feminism, a truth that Janis — unlike many of her new-age girl-boss contemporaries — discovers the hard way. Cruz is adept at playing messy, impulsive entertainers, but her control of Janis reveals a new weapon in the actress’ armor: a stillness that betrays the inner storm. This moving character trait is tied to Janis’ career as a still photographer: she captures moments, objects and people for commercial memory and personal posterity. His Madrid apartment is perfect, color-matched, tasteful but also rootless – a circle that only comes full circle towards the end of the film.
Most movies could have turned into a bedroom thriller in this apartment. But Almodovar not only employs narrative subterfuge in Parallel mothers, he also humanizes it. The film is not afraid to sacrifice fiction on the altar of narrative non-fiction, and individualism on the altar of national plurality. What we call an anti-climax is perhaps the culmination of the catharsis. What we call feminism is perhaps the search for lost identity. After all, when a woman goes into motherhood, she enables the future by becoming the past.
Parallel Mothers is playing in select theaters in India.
Watch the trailer here
Rahul Desai is a film critic and programmer, who spends his free time traveling to all the locations of the films he writes about.
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