Pedro Almodovar and Penelope Cruz open the 78th Venice Film Festival with a powerful story of loss and remembrance
Dir/scr: Pedro Almodovar. Spain. 2021. 123 minutes.
Parallel Mothers steals up on the viewer. For most of its running time, Pedro Almodovar’s 22nd feature appears to be a classic melodrama of the director’s late period – less busy with side characters and subplots than most – about the fallout from a mix-up at a maternity hospital. But it becomes something very different indeed. Spain’s most celebrated living director started out as a flamboyant and occasionally flippant outsider, both charting and driving the ’movida Madrilena’ in a series of gleefully provocative indie films. In his latest, he has become something very like the elder statesman of all that is anti-establishment in Spain – reminding a forgetful country of the historical anger and desire for retribution following the death of Franco which underlined the movida in the first place.
Two tales of removal – one maternal, the other political and historic
The director’s last feature, Pain And Glory, the portrait of an ageing film director raging against the dying of the light, was widely seen as marking a new autobiographical turn in Almodovar’s career. In one way, Parallel Mothers marks a return to more familiar territory - as a pure drama in which fate and chance play a major role, as a women’s film, and as a meditation on cross-generational connections and misunderstandings. Yet both films are elegies in their own way.
In her eighth role for the director, Penelope Cruz puts in a terrifically natural, unaffected performance as a professional photographer Janis, who asks forensic archaeologist Arturo (Israel Elejalde) – whom she has just finished shooting for a magazine – to help arrange the excavation of a mass grave in her home village. This contains the long buried, but never forgotten, local men killed by the Falangists early on in Franco’s ‘White Terror’. With this, Almodovar establishes one strand of his film, but Parallel Mothers soon veers into very different territory when Janis and the married Arturo embark on a passionate affair – and a baby is born, which Janis decides to raise alone. It’s in the maternity hospital that the film seems to settle on its true focus – the rapport between Janis and her ward-mate, troubled late-teen mother Ana (a pure, intense Milena Smit), whose pregnancy is equally accidental but far less welcome.
We know that the grave that contains the bones of Janis’s great-grandfather is destined to return – Almodovar always ties up loose ends – but it fades from the audience’s memory, as arguably it has faded from Spain’s, as the maternal plot intensifies. The shunned Arturo wants back into Janis’ life now that he’s a father, while Ana’s own mother (Aitana Sanchez-Gijon), a frustrated actress who has found work and recognition late in life, acts as one of many distorted reflections of motherhood in a story that is partly about the biological, societal and psychological pressures placed on women who become mothers. Janis’ apartment enacts this wider, sorority spirit in a series of photographs hung on the walls that show women who match the camera’s controlling stare with their own defiant gazes.
It’s a sobering thought that Spain ranks second in the world after Cambodia for the number of 20th-century ‘desperacidos’ – those murdered by a repressive regime and never accounted for. This ongoing debate about Historical Memory and the search for unmarked graves – one that still touches raw nerves in the country – is reflected in the film’s desire for truth and accountability and self-identity before it returns directly to that strand of the plot.
Overall, it feels as if Almodover is reuniting a favourite band here. From the actors - Cruz; the sassy magazine editor played by Rossy de Palma; Julieta Serrano in a cameo role as a grandmother. The familiar technical team - production designer Antxon Gomez (who has helped to give body to the director’s hyper-real chromatic world since All About My Mother in 1997) and DoP Jose Luis Alcaine (with Almodovar since Women On the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown in 1988), while Alberto Iglesias has produced one of the best of his many great soundtracks for the director, by turns sombre and sensuous, yet deeply classical. But the story is fresh, and audiences won’t need any knowledge of previous works in order to appreciate the audiovisual craft and finesse on show here.
Alcaide’s warm, classical camerawork once again pleasurably translates Almodovar’s design language, as most recently evidenced in the director’s 2020 short The Human Voice (which also played at Venice; Almodovar’s films have more traditionally shown at Cannes). From the baby blue of a hospital gown, to the vivid pink of Arturo’s romantic roses and the acid yellow of a jeep that appears towards the end – there is meaning, emotion and narrative embedded in these hues. This comfortable armchair of great, old-school cinematic craft is made all the more embracing by Iglesias’s nuanced soundtrack. But we’re jolted out of that seat, and made to stand in admiration, as the film deftly weaves together two tales of removal – one maternal, the other political and historic.
Production companies: Remotamente Films, El Deseo
International sales: FilmNation Entertainment, firstname.lastname@example.org
Producers: Agustín Almodóvar, Esther García
Production design: Antxon Gomez
Editing: Teresa Font
Cinematography: Jose Luis Alcaine
Music: Alberto Iglesias
Main cast: Penelope Cruz, Aitana Sanchez-Gijon, Milena Smit, Israel Elejalde, Daniela Santiago, Julieta Serrano, Rossy de Palma