Here are two compelling reasons to see the foreign language film Parallel Mothers, by Spanish writer/director Pedro Almodovar. Penelope Cruz is up for a Best Actress Oscar for her outstanding performance, and the film is every bit as good as she is.
At a photo shoot, Madrid-based Janis (Penelope Cruz) is photographing Arturo, a forensic archaeologist, for a magazine cover. Afterwards she asks to speak to him about a private matter. Decades earlier during the Spanish Civil War, her great-grandfather and a number of other men were taken from their homes in a rural village and never seen again. These men were just some of General Franco’s victims buried in unmarked graves. Janis was raised in that village by her grandmother and believes she knows the site of the mass grave. She’s leading an effort to have it excavated so the men can receive a proper burial and the villagers can find some closure. Because Arturo works for the Association for the Recovery of Historical Memory (created after Franco’s death in 1975), he’s in a position to advocate for her cause. The problem, he tells her, is that the government has stopped funding most of these projects, and even if it could be done, there’s a three-year wait. A short time later Arturo is back in Madrid, asking to see Janis. There’s a spark between them, a romantic connection that leaves Janis pregnant. Happily so, even though she’ll be raising her child as a single mother—for reasons I won’t give away here.
These first scenes fly by, in under ten minutes, and this sub-plot about the dead villagers doesn’t reappear until near the end. Most of the rest of the film is the story of two single mothers—Janis, who’s in her late-30s, and Ana, who’s in her late teens.
Janis and Ana meet when they’re assigned to the same hospital room. Janis is joyful and upbeat about her surprise pregnancy; Ana is fearful about hers, partly because of the way the child was conceived, and partly because of her weak support system at home. Yet the two women bond, and Ana is buoyed by the older woman’s effervescence and confidence that all will be well. They deliver daughters on the same day. The babies are fine, they’re told, but both infants are placed in observation before they’re returned to their mothers.
The two mothers go back to their separate lives, but circumstances conspire for them to reconnect. Janis’s babysitter is unreliable, and she asks Ana to come live with her to help with the care of her baby. By then, Janis is harboring a terrible secret, and it’s only a matter of time before she divulges it. Or will she—because what would it do to her life if she does?
To say more would spoil the twists and turns of the film.
As the domestic story progresses, it seems as if the main reason for the opening scenes was to bring Janis and Arturo together, which is how she ends up pregnant. Not so. Janis, like all of us, must navigate her life in the midst of a larger world in which she has limited or no control. Everything pulls at her, from the fact she comes from a line of single mothers, to a hospital’s grave mistake, to her country’s troubled history, to the current political environment. Meanwhile Ana must navigate motherhood while barely out of adolescence. Although her parents are well-off, they’re divorced and living in different cities. Ana was living with her father until she became pregnant and he sent her back to Teresa, her mother, who freely admits to being the worst mother in the world. What she’s always wanted most is success as an actress, and she’s finally landed a major part in the touring production of a play.
When Arturo the forensic archaeologist re-enters the picture, not only is the opening of the story brought full circle, but we’re able to witness major changes in the lives of the two mothers.
Filmmaker Pedro Almodovar was only twenty-five when Franco died in 1975, after nearly forty years in power. At the time, Almodovar was more than happy to turn his back on the Franco years and revel in the freedoms of democracy. He threw himself into the Arts and began making rather wild, avant-garde feature films. For a time, Spain tried to forget the past, too. When Franco died, all the political parties agreed to avoid litigating the crimes of the Civil War so they could focus on the transition to democracy. The Pact of Forgetting, they called it, but that proved impossible. In 2007, the Law of Historical Memory condemned the Franco regime and provided funding for tracing and digging up corpses. It’s estimated that 100,000 civilians “went missing” during the Spanish Civil War.
Almodovar is now seventy-two, and he’s the most famous living filmmaker in Spain, as well as an Oscar winner for All About My Mother, a 1999 film. Parallel Mothers is the first of his films to address the lingering effects of the Civil War on his fellow countrymen.
“This movie is a way of saying to the youth that they have to look to the past,” Almodovar said, in an October 2021 interview in IndieWire. He believes they are only concerned with big problems like climate change, and, while important, it’s only by understanding their country’s past that they’ll realize they’re living with inherited problems.
In re-educating myself on the causes of the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939), it’s clear that no one side was to blame. There was a left party and a right party, extremists on both sides, and citizens in the center who leaned left or right. Poverty and inequality were factors. But the main cause seems to be the failure of all sides to compromise and respect the rights and opinions of others. When the left side was in power, the right side couldn’t accept it. When the right side was in power, the left side couldn’t accept it. The end result? Of the estimated 500,000 lives lost in the war, about 100,000 civilians went missing, never to be seen again, until, in some cases . . .