Alas, poor Yorick! At the start of Parallel Mothers, a photographer named Janis (Penélope Cruz) rejects a skull that is offered as a prop for a photo session in her Madrid studio. Too cheesy, she decides, given that her subject, Arturo (Israel Elejalde), is a forensic anthropologist. Janis’s great-grandfather was executed in the 1930s and dumped with nine others in an unmarked grave – a fraction of the 100,000 or so missing since the start of the Spanish Civil War. Arturo oversees excavations for the Association of Historical Memory. Could he find her relative’s remains?
We aren’t shown the moment at which he and Janis begin their affair, only the white curtain billowing out of the window while they are having sex. From the street, it appears to be ballooning like a pregnant belly.
Janis is single by the time she gives birth. Sharing her maternity ward is the teenage Ana (Milena Smit), also alone but rather less ecstatic about motherhood. The women agree to keep in touch, scribbling their respective phone numbers on a sheet of paper then ripping it in two. It is one of a series of bisections that extend to colour, set design and assorted emotional estrangements. Mothers are separated from daughters, families torn apart in the war.
Unity in the film is represented by female solidarity and an insistence on remembering. Janis laughs when Ana admits she has never heard of the rock legend after whom she is named, but she scolds the younger woman for arguing that “you have to look to the future or you’ll open old wounds”, an attitude formerly embodied by Spain in the post-Franco era. “No one in your family has told you the truth about your country,” she says.
This is Pedro Almodóvar’s 22nd film, and his seventh with Cruz. Is there another actor who more deftly combines high-wattage glamour and technical skill with a kind of shrugging casualness? Watch the scene where she orders a muffin at a pavement café, then skedaddles before she has time to eat it, but still takes it with her in the taxi. Movie stars never do that!
Cruz’s first film with Almodóvar, Live Flesh (1997), also began with her character giving birth, though in that case it was on a bus at night during General Franco’s final years. That picture ended with a line that wouldn’t be out of place in Parallel Mothers: “In Spain, we stopped being scared a long time ago.” The new one goes even further in combining the personal and political, and eliding distinctions between past, present and future.
A shift in chronology is signalled here simply by a change in Janis’s shirt, from dynamic red as she goes to open the door to Arturo, to recessive blue as she greets him. He tries to persuade her to have an abortion so they can plan instead for the future. “But this is the future,” she says. It is as if she knows she is in a flashback.
Red and green dominate Parallel Mothers, zinging together in shot after shot. But the colours also transmit contradictory messages (“stop” and “go”), which embody the film’s tension between repression and openness, lies and truth; even the principled Janis is engaged in a cover-up. When an accord is reached between her and Arturo, it is signposted by their clothes. She is wearing (surprise!) a red jacket, and he is in an orange jumper. In life, this would warrant a face palm, and a promise to coordinate all future wardrobe choices. In an Almodóvar movie, it equals harmony.
A pity, then, that the director’s attitude towards race provides a discordant element. The exact nature of the insensitivity can’t be discussed here for fear of spoiling some of the story’s surprises. Suffice to say that not all of them are pleasant, and one reflects poorly on Almodóvar, who would do well to remember that race is not merely a plot point.
That aside, Parallel Mothers finds its director reaching new heights of sophistication, and his regular composer Alberto Iglesias balancing expertly the playful and the solemn. The picture ends with a final meeting of its dominant colours. Red tape seals off the corner of the verdant field where Arturo’s excavation team is about to break ground; Janis arrives at the site in a green vehicle, Ana in a red one. There are echoes of Hamlet again – not one skull this time but many, disinterred by a whole phalanx of gravediggers. Alas, indeed.
“Parallel Mothers” is in cinemas now
This article appears in the 26 Jan 2022 issue of the New Statesman, The Light that Failed