Director: Pedro Almodóvar (Spain). Year of Release: 2021
Madrid, 2016. Janis is a photographer working in the fashion industry. She tells her subjects to relax, just lift your arm, smile a little. It’s a bit of a production line, and her next victim is Arturo, a forensic anthropologist. While the gophers look for a skull he can pose with (not a good idea, she acknowledges) she asks Arturo for a favour. Her father was executed by Franco during the Civil War but relatives think they know where his mass grave is. Could Arturo help find it?
Arturo says he’ll do what he can – there are foundations for this sort of thing, but it can take years to get funding. In the meantime, he’d like to talk to Janis a bit more. This is how she ends up in the maternity ward 9 months later, sharing a room with teenager Ana. Cue: film of the two women giving birth (you really think it’s less painful than a kick in the balls?) and some mutual bonding. The women swap numbers before they leave the hospital, and their lives will become intertwined.
Janis tells Arturo about her baby girl. He’s delighted for Janis of course, but disputes that the baby could be his. Isn’t she too dark skinned? he asks. Janis explains that this must have come from her father, but Arturo is having none of it. Eventually, reluctantly, she organises a paternity test without letting him know about it. What do you know? It’s not his. A few plot developments later, and she takes a maternity test of her own. Turns out the baby isn’t hers either.
Maybe that’s more than enough plot spoilers already, but (1) you haven’t heard half of the plot yet, and (2) this is a film more about mood than trying to surprize its audience. Storylines develop, but they are interesting because of how the different characters react. Most of the significant figures are abandoned women. Janis is both the daughter and grand daughter of single mothers, although the only thing her mother seems to have done for her is name her after Janis Joplin.
As this is a Pedro Almodóvar film, of course everything looks brilliant. No-one wears beige in an Almodóvar film, nor do they drive brown cars. If your brain turns off from what is happening to the characters (and it really shouldn’t), you can luxuriate in the mass of primary colours. Every scene – both indoors and outside – has been thoughtfully constructed as something which is beautiful to view.
And yet, unlike some Almodóvar films, which I’ve found to have more style than substance, Parallele Mütter has a LOT of serious plot. From family relationships (Ana’s father is long gone and her mother is happier playing Lorca on stage than bonding with her daughter) to the difficulty of sustaining relationships, the film has the melodramatic qualities of Almodóvar’s best films. But it is more than just that.
For a while, Spanish friends have been telling me about the Spanish Civil War graves, They do require some explanation to understand their importance in this film. Some facts are obvious without background knowledge. During and after the Spanish Civil War, maybe 100,000 of Franco’s enemies were executed and buried in unmarked mass graves. For decades, their families were unable to properly grieve as they could not locate the bodies of their close relatives.
But this is not just a historical story about something which ended in the 1930s. For a start, Spain remained a Fascist dictatorship until Franco’s death in 1975. And even after that, successive governments – both conservative and social democratic – collaborated in the Pact of Forgetting where they refused to even acknowledge that the mass graves exist.
In 2007, the Historical Memory Law finally denounced the Franco régime. But it was not until the Democratic Memory Law that the Spanish government would commit itself to exhuming the bodies of Franco’s victims. This law is still being discussed in parliament and has still not been passed. It is being opposed not just by the quasi-fascists of VOX but also by mainstream Conservatives. So events mentioned in Parallele Mütter are strikingly relevant to modern politics.
In a recent Guardian interview, Almodóvar proudly declared himself a man of the Left. This was something we always suspected – no right-winger could show his sensitivity towards oppressed minorities, but I don’t ever remember him being so explicitly political. He has often mixed soap opera plots with social comment, but usually about people on the fringes of society. Given the number of people who lost family in the Civil War, Parallele Mütter is about mainstream society.
Parallele Mütter works on several levels – like all Almodóvar films, it looks fantastic. It also contains fascinating characters dealing with live-changing experiences, but also addresses mainstream social issues in a way that Almodóvar often avoids. I only have one minor moan – do all the heroes have to employ cleaners and nannies? It makes them less sympathetic – and unnecessarily to know that there are characters who are largely off screen cleaning up their muck.