Almodovar: Parallel Mothers (2021)

Parallel Mothers is Pedro Almodovar’s film about the return of fascism – both as a generational memory of Franco’s Spain and, more urgently, as a political horizon that is emerging once again in our own present. Set against the ongoing ramifications of Spain’s Historical Memory Law, the film opens with two discrete modes of documentation. On the one hand, we have Janis, a photographer played by Penelope Cruz. Janis’ background in photography has given her a special sense of affinity with her great-grandfather, who was also a photographer, and who was an early casualty of the Spanish Civil War. Shortly after taking pictures of himself and his fellow soldiers, he was marched out of his home town, and buried in a mass grave. This brings in the second form of documentation, that of forensic anthropologist Arturo, played by Israel Elejalde, who Janis meets on a fashion shoot. The two sleep together and enter into a quasi-romantic relationship, but it all begins with Janis asking Arturo if she can hire him and his team to perform a proper excavation of the mass grave site.

However, while Janis and Arturo come together over their shared pursuit of documentation, they’re driven apart just as quickly when Janis realises that she’s pregnant. First, Arturo suggests she have an abortion, and then he questions whether her baby Cecilia is actually his, both of which actions deflect their documentary collaboration into Janis’ relationship with Cecilia. This, in turn, is complicated by Janis’ relationship with Ana, a young woman she meets in the maternity ward, played by Milena Smit. As Janis gets to know Ana, and becomes more intertwined in her life, the Almodovarean trope of disrupted lineage starts to come through – specifically, his interest in the ways that thwarting the desire to attribute fatherhood can open up more reparative and inclusive forms of social belonging. That’s not to say that the film isn’t attached to this form of fatherhood – we learn that Janis’ great-grandfather was given a night to escape Franco’s army, and chose to spend it with his wife and children instead – but that for Almodovar the nuclear family structure seems to have been permanently infected by fascist Spain, and so ripple with the residues of Franco’s government ever since.

During the middle part of the film, then, a parallel emerges between excavation and pregnancy, as Janis redirects her yearning to know her great-grandfather’s resting place into motifs of twisted, convoluted or simply thwarted genealogy. Janis’ babysitter spends so much of her time studying Spanish philology (and ineffectively at that) that she forgets to properly care for Cecilia, thereby dichotomising the search for genealogical reassurance with care for real people in the present. Likewise, the passage from birth canal to world, the foundation of all lineages, is curiously thwarted for much of Parallel Mothers. Early on, Janis is told that Cecilia suffers from extrauterine inadaptation, which is “not a great start, because that’s the life ahead of her, extrauterine.” More traumatically, Ana’s baby Anita succumbs to crib death because of cerebral immaturity – “her brain simply forgot to tell her that she had to breathe.”

These motifs of genealogy are further twisted by Janis and Ana’s own complicated experiences of motherhood. We learn that Ana’s mother “had no calling to be a mother or a wife” and “doesn’t have a maternal instinct,” while Janis’ mother was a hippy who not only named her after Janis Joplin, but also died at 27 of a drug overdone. These tortured webs extend to Janis and Ian’s relationship with men as well. Shortly after moving in with her, and starting a lesbian love affair with her, Ana reveals to Janis that her pregnancy resulted from a gang rape, meaning that she doesn’t even technically know who the father is. However, the twistiest lineage of all revolves around Janis’ relation to the father of her child. Janis is already disoriented by the fact of being able to still have a child, and is quite content to be “a single mother, like my mother and my grandmother” (that is, the generations following her great-grandfather’s summative defence of family in the face of the fascism that has tainted everyone else to the present day). But things reticulate further when Janis realises that Cecilia doesn’t look like her, Arturo or (perhaps more importantly) the photographs of her great-grandfather, leading to the central twist of the film: Janis and Ana’s children were switched at birth, meaning Janis never got a chance to mourn the death of her child in a direct manner.

This switched-at-birth melodrama dovetails with the Franco narrative over the final act of the film, as Janis’ effort to undo her maternal attachment to Cecilia segues into her reconnection with Arturo over the excavation project. She goes from testing her and Ana’s DNA against that of their respective daughters to taking swabs from every member of her extended family to use when removing the skeletons from the mass grave. The night before the excavation starts, we see Janis’ family home in detail for the first time, as a testament to an older kind of genealogy whose different permutations dot the walls in the portraits and photographs that Janis has chosen to keep in place “as a part of the rural style.” She and Arturo eat dinner at the table where her great-grandfather was sitting on the night the fascists took him, and then sleep together in the room where she, her mother and her grandmother were all conceived.

In the last moments of the film, both the yearning for a paternal genealogy untainted by past and future fascism, and the redemptive power of messier and more contorted genealogies, finally come together in a double helix like dance. All of the characters in the film, including Ana, along with Janis’ friend Elena, played by Rossy De Palma, join hands at the graveside, where we learn that not only is Janis pregnant again, but she has reconciled with Ana. In fact, she promises to name her baby Ana if it’s a girl, or Antonio, after her great-grandfather, if it’s a boy. They may be linguistic cognates, but Ana and Antonio represent vast differences in lineage and genealogy as it is conceived across the film. Nevertheless, they are joined in the final two tracking-shots of Parallel Mothers, the first of which moves across the face of every character as they stand beside the open grave, and the second of which moves across these same characters, now lying prone inside the grave, in the position of the dead soldiers, as a little girl, an emissary from the future, looks down. Even the paternal genealogies that were magnified to monstrosity by the older forms of fascism are at risk now, Almodovar seems to be saying, in the face of an impending neofascism that the film can barely bring itself to evoke, let alone visualise, but which resounds across the epigraph from Eduardo Galeano that precedes the credits, as the final note of Parallel Mothers: “No history is mute. No matter how they own it, lie it, break it, and lie about it, human history refuses to shut its mouth. Despite deafness and ignorance, the time that was continues to tick inside the time that is.”

About Billy Stevenson (930 Articles)
Massive NRL fan, passionate Wests Tigers supporter with a soft spot for the Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs and a big follower of US sports as well.

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