Pedro Almodóvar’s melodrama Parallel Mothers features brilliant performances but is ultimately jejune. By Christos Tsiolkas.
Pedro Almodóvar first gained international attention in the early 1980s as a leading participant of La Movida Madrileña, the exuberant renaissance in Spanish culture that followed the demise of the fascist Franco regime. His initial low-budget films were anarchic sex romps that fused punk provocation with an incendiary queer sensibility. Almodóvar’s films were less dour than the anglophone punk wave, and films such as Dark Habits, What Have I Done to Deserve This? and Law of Desire remain joyously, scabrously funny to this day.
His genuine fascination with the complexity and contradictions of female desire has meant that sometimes his work courted controversy. At times – as with the masochist fantasia of Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! (1990) – it seemed as if he was deliberately choosing to be antagonistic. Yet a film such as Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown (1988) is an astonishing gem: his evident adulation for the female ensemble cast is inseparable from his feminist and sexual liberationist convictions. That film first made me aware of how singular and radical his filmmaking aesthetic is, how it celebrates the dazzling beauty of the domestic interior. Kitchens, bedrooms, living rooms and studies have a visceral life to them: they are almost characters. Almodóvar knows that the domestic is as important and as momentous as the “street” or the “courtroom” or the “battleground”.
I miss the mischievousness of his rebellious first wave but, of course, they were part of a youthful rawness. When he attempted to return to that spirit in 2013’s I’m So Excited! it was a misstep, a sex comedy that felt tired and immediately dated. After those early films, Almodóvar embraced melodrama and a more nuanced and sophisticated representation of gender and sexuality. This period began with the subtle, emotionally redolent The Flower of My Secret (1995), and its apotheosis was a masterpiece, 1999’s All About My Mother. In those films – as well as Live Flesh (1997), Volver (2006) and most recently 2016’s Julieta – the friendship between women becomes the central narrative. His adoration of women is instinctive, considered and – although camp is important to his style – never mocking. This means he offers fantastic opportunities for his actors. I’ll never forget first seeing the dynamism and operatic force of Penélope Cruz’s performance in Volver, her joy in shrugging off those wasted years in Hollywood.
Parallel Mothers comes after 2019’s Pain and Glory, a beautiful autobiographical work. In looking back to an artist’s earliest memories to interrogate purpose and intent, it had a remarkable daring. We sensed Almodóvar trusting the assuredness and control of his craft to risk telling stories in new, exploratory ways.
He is also looking back in Parallel Mothers, specifically at the history that first galvanised his generation. Cruz plays Janis, a photographer in Madrid who has been commissioned to take a series of portraits of a renowned archaeologist, Arturo (Israel Elejalde). She asks for his help in uncovering a mass grave of people murdered by the fascists in her home town. Janis and Arturo begin an affair and when she falls pregnant, she decides to keep the child.
In the maternity ward she meets Ana (Milena Smit), a teenager whose decision to keep her child is unwelcomed by her own mother, Teresa (Aitana Sánchez-Gijón), an actor on the cusp of achieving fame in a theatrical production of Garcia Lorca’s Doña Rosita the Spinster. Immediately after the births, the two babies are taken away for some precautionary medical examinations. Once back home, Janis is enthralled by her daughter, Cecilia, but Arturo can’t see himself or his family in his child. Initially angered by his doubts, Janis too begins to wonder if she is Cecilia’s biological mother.
Two children being switched at birth is the most outrageous of melodramatic tropes. Self-possessed performances from Cruz and Smit and Almodóvar’s animated direction ensure that, although our credulity is stretched, we succumb to the emotional potency of the story. The two central actors are key, but so is the expert work of the supporting cast. Sánchez-Gijón is wonderful: Teresa is always self-absorbed, but one of Almodóvar’s gifts is that he is never cruel to his characters. In one scene we see Teresa giving a monologue during a rehearsal of the Lorca play, and her delivery is spellbinding. We understand why an actor in her late 40s who has waited all her life for a role such as this might be impatient with the choices her daughter has made and has now foisted upon her.
Ultimately the film is frustrating. The script is often shambolic and I wasn’t convinced that the keeping of family secrets equates with the deep injustices of historic dissembling. One problem is that Almodóvar pulls his punches when it comes to Ana. As her and Janis’s intimacy deepens, there is a powerful moment when the two women are arguing about the legacy of fascism. Janis challenges the younger woman but, just when we are hoping for some clarity, some genuine argument and conflict, the scene ends abruptly, leaving a sense that the filmmaker hasn’t done the necessary work of thinking through how to relate the political to the personal.
The doubts around Cecilia’s paternity emerge after the discovery that her biological father must be Latin American. This is further complicated by a further revelation that Ana’s pregnancy is the result of gang rape. The spectres of Spanish colonialism and dispossession are raised and then reduced to plot devices, a glaring blunder in a film purporting to be about the silences of history.
Indeed, Janis seems blithely oblivious to that history. At this point I started losing sympathy with both her and Ana. Politics is reduced to the merely symbolic, the wearing of a slogan on a haute-couture T-shirt or an expensive agitprop artwork on a wall.
The film regains momentum in its final act, when Janis returns to her home town to witness the exhuming of the graves. The granddaughters and great-granddaughters of those murdered by fascists have been unstinting in refusing to allow the memory of the past to be erased. These women’s faces are bathed in radiant light, and the framing of these scenes imbues them with dignity and power. The scene at the gravesite is the most starkly affecting of any moment in the film. But I was left with a real sense of an opportunity lost. Almodóvar isn’t oblivious to Ana’s and Janis’s selfishness, how their pampered lives are a contrast to these rural women, but the introduction of the villagers comes too late. We regret not hearing their stories.
Melodrama can be an effective, powerful genre through which to examine history. An obvious influence on Almodóvar is German director Rainer Werner Fassbinder. In his greatest films, Fassbinder uses melodrama to expose the contradictions and terrors of the Nazi past by exploring the lives of women who find themselves caught in the nightmares of history. Fassbinder’s heroines are mercurial and contradictory, and their complicity with the past is an essential element of the narrative. Almodóvar is kinder to his characters: Parallel Mothers could have done with some of the tension that comes from an unflinching gaze. In this instance, the melodrama undermines rather than illuminates the tragedy of history.
It’s a light, sunny work. I am grateful for the performances, and especially for the opportunity to enjoy the sublime work of Rossy de Palma. She has a small role, almost a cameo, but once again she proves she is one of the great screen comedians. But compared with the maturity of Pain and Glory, the film seems jejune.
Over 40 years, Almodóvar has built a considerable trust with his audiences. I’m hoping that Parallel Mothers is that tentative one step back he needs to make before leaping forward into a new creative phase of filmmaking.
EXHIBITION Jeffrey Smart
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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on January 29, 2022 as "Symbolic politics".
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