Pedro Almodóvar’s Madres Paralelas (Parallel Mothers) has already gotten Penélope Cruz the Volpi Cup for Best Actress, the National Society of Film Critics Award for Best Actress, along with an Oscar Nomination for the same category, and it’s clear why. There’s so much power and intensity in her performance, and I think it matches the subject matter very well. I went into this film expecting an off-kilter exploration of racism/colorism in Spanish society paired with themes of family, motherhood and womanhood; and while the film definitely delivered on these fronts, I didn’t expect it to place all these themes against the backdrop of the Spanish Civil War’s legacy, showing us a country still struggling with the aftermath of a fascist dictatorship.
The film begins with Janis, played by Cruz, seeking the help of Arturo, an archeologist, to dig up a mass grave in her town that she claims is from the Spanish Civil War. The grave reportedly contains two of her ancestors killed by General Franco’s forces. This notion of being cut off from one’s history is present throughout the film, but especially in Janis’ character. She also doesn’t know her father at all, doesn’t even have a photo of him. All she has are memories and stories told by other people, and the credibility of these stories is frequently called into question. In this way, Janis represents an entire generation of Spaniards trying to piece together the bits of their past that were left in the wake of Franco’s dictatorship, which was responsible for over 100,000 disappearances.
While giving birth in the maternity ward, Janis meets Ana, a young teenager who was impregnated after being sexually assaulted. Both are on the verge of becoming single moms, but Ana has no job and her support system consists of a wildly-negligent mother and a father who couldn’t care less. This in and of itself could be considered a sociopolitical critique: showing the way post-fascist Spain still has no social safety net to support young women in need leads us to understand that there are still a lot of changes that must be made.
Ana and Janis stay in contact over the years, eventually becoming lovers. One night, Janis talks about her desire to dig up the grave, and is hurt when Ana tells her that it’s a waste of time to worry about the past. She says it’s better to focus on the current moment instead. Janis, understandably upset, tells Ana that we must worry about history, because it directly impacts the current moment. “Find out where your family was during the war,” she tells Ana, “find out where you stand today.” According to Janis, it’s only when all the victims are given funerals and families are reunited, only when these still-open wounds are healed, that “the Civil War will be over.” For us to be able to grasp the future’s possibilities, we must reckon with the political histories that shape the here-and-now.
At one point, cradling her pregnant stomach, Janis even tells Arturo that the child she carries “is the future.” So, years later, when we learn that Ana and Janis’ babies were swapped—and that Janis’ biological child died from SIDS a while ago—we get a sense of this fractured past yielding a bleak/dead future. But in the film’s emotional crescendo of a finale, we also get a bit of hope.
As the mass grave is exhumed by Arturo and his team of archeologists, Janis and all the townspeople come to be reunited with their disappeared family members, weeping and carrying cracked black-and-white photos of their lost loved ones. It is here that we understand how coming to terms with the horrors of history can not only provide a kind of closure, but can create a sense of community, and perhaps be the real first step forward towards healing, towards building something new. One of my favorite endings for a 2021 film, maybe of all time. Catch Madres Paralelas in theaters while you can!