Tuesday, June 21, 2022

Parallel Mothers (Madres paralelas)


Giuseppe Pellizza da Volpedo’s Il Quarto Stato, 1901

Writer/director/producer Pedro Almodóvar

Almodóvar with Penélope Cruz

Almodóvar with Milena Smit and Penélope Cruz

Valley of the Fallen




PARALLEL MOTHERS (Madres paralelas)       B                                                                      Spain  France (123 mi)  2021  d: Pedro Almodóvar

No history is mute.  However much they burn it, however much they smash it, however much they lie about it, human history refuses to shut its mouth.                                                           — innertitle seen at the end of the film from Uruguayan essayist, journalist, historian, and social activist Eduardo Galeano’s collection of essays, Patas Arriba: Escuela del Mundo al Revés (Upside Down: A Primer for the Looking-Glass World), 1998

Almodóvar has avoided references to Franco throughout his career, making films that are mostly non-political, though he emerged as part of La Movida Madrileña, an underground, counterculture artistic movement taking place in Madrid after the death of Franco in 1975, mixing alternative theater, punk rock, and porn ("'Bless the chaos': La Movida Madrileña, Spain's seedy, wild post-Franco underground") in an attempt to break free of the Franco-imposed state of exception, a fascist state aligned with the Catholic Church that brutally restricted civil liberties and freedom of expression.  In his 1997 film LIVE FLESH, the first to feature a young Penélope Cruz (appearing onscreen for all of 8-minutes), she plays a young mother giving birth at Christmas on a bus in the middle of the night in Madrid, set during the Franco-era state of emergency of 1970, as she goes into labor (giving birth to the film’s protagonist), graffiti on the wall can be seen that reads “Libertad, Abajo el estado de escepción!/Liberty, down with the state of exception!”  Almodóvar’s early work particularly emphasized social and sexual freedoms, taking satiric shots at the Catholic Church, basically violating every known taboo, largely viewed as a response to break free of the Franco-era of repression.  While Almodóvar is the most famous filmmaker of La Movida, blending fast-paced comedic farce into classic melodrama mixed with film noir, his films amplified the exhilaration of the transition to democracy that followed Franco’s death, though they largely tend to be viewed as apolitical.  Not so here, as this is an intentional reminder of history, the film that most directly addresses the topic of historical memory, taking on the horrifying legacy of Franco’s Spain, a fascist dictatorship that officially lasted from 1939 until 1975, responsible for those “disappeared” citizens who were forcibly abducted, tortured, and murdered by paramilitary forces, subject to mass burial in unmarked graves of anywhere up to 150,000 civilians.  As many as a million more passed through concentration camps built during the 40’s, with many dying of malnutrition and starvation.  Another half-million fled Spain as political refugees.  Over the next four decades of Franco’s rule, thousands were arrested, tortured or murdered by the secret police, while strikes, political parties, and trade unions were banned, and democratic rights suppressed.  The aftermath of Franco’s death was followed by a pacto del olvido, or pact of forgetting, a 1977 Amnesty Law that secured the release of all political prisoners, yet the political parties decided that the best way of transitioning past the dictatorship into a democracy was to “forget” about recent atrocities, allowing time for memories and eyewitnesses to die, as there would be no prosecutions for war crimes or human rights violations, an unwritten agreement that stayed in place until the first mass grave was dug up in 2000.  While it’s impossible to know exactly, as many of these mass graves no longer exist because they have been dug up without anyone knowing or because freeways, industrial parks, and new neighborhoods have been built over them, yet reportedly 90,000 missing Spaniards were shot during the 1936-39 civil war and dumped in unidentified mass graves, with another 40,000 in the postwar period, including the remains of Spanish poet and playwright Federico García Lorca, which have yet to be found, with only 19,000 bodies currently recovered.  In 2007, thirty years after democratic rule was established, Spain passed the Historical Memory Law, The Historical Memory Law (Law 52/2007 of December 26th), which not only condemns Franco's actions during the civil war but provides a legal framework to exhume buried bodies, using scientific DNA methods to trace and identify victims buried in mass graves, while also requiring statues, plaques, and other symbols of the dictatorship to be removed from public places.  Almodóvar was an executive producer on THE SILENCE OF OTHERS (2018), a documentary film that examines the 6-year struggle to discover the missing victims, which may have been the stimulus for making this film.  The main criticism is the structural nature, as the central story about the two women actually dominates the film, while the historical perspective, which carries much greater weight, is only added tangentially.  For instance, while Almodóvar intersperses his film with painful reminders of Spain’s civil war, it’s not the centerpiece, as it is in the César Díaz film about the still-existing open wounds from the 36-year Guatemalan civil war, 2019 Top Ten List #8 Our Mothers (Nuestras madres), which documents the painstakingly slow task of excavating dead bodies littered around the country in unmarked graves.  In a book of interviews published in 2006, Almodóvar said, “Twenty years ago, my revenge against Franco was to not even recognize his existence, his memory; to make my films as if he had never existed.  Today I think it fitting that we don’t forget that period, and remember that it wasn’t so long ago.” 

Essentially the story of two pregnant mothers, Janis (Penélope Cruz), a photojournalist and commercial photographer approaching 40, and Ana (newcomer Milena Smit), a single teen living with her mother, meeting at the hospital and striking up a friendship surrounding their perfectly healthy newborn daughters.  With dizzying economy, Almodóvar establishes the premise of his film in just a few minutes, including an initial photo session with Arturo (Israel Elejalde), a renowned forensic archaeologist, asking for his help in excavating a mass grave in her home village, a place where her great-grandfather, who was also a photographer, is presumably buried, along with several of his compatriots that he photographed before they fell at the hands of Franco’s soldiers, all victims of the Spanish civil war, as she wants them to be buried with their family respectfully, a project that takes time to get funding approval, followed by dinner over a bottle of wine, white curtains billowing in the breeze, a sign of sexual activity happening inside, then jumping ahead to the hospital room.  Both pregnancies are unplanned, with Janis delighted, something she’s always wanted, while the more vulnerable Ana is less enthused, showing signs of regret, yet it’s the starting point of a developing friendship, as women typically take center stage in Almodóvar’s films.  While the title is deceiving, as they don’t actually live parallel lives, they actually intersect at one point, nearly indistinguishable, becoming one and the same, calling into question just what the director had in mind, though it may also refer to the two separate plot lines in the film.  While the director spends considerable time developing the different lives of each mother, they remain close, sharing baby pictures, and looking out for one another.  When Arturo comes to visit the baby, right off the bat he feels no connection, going so far as to think the baby is not his, but she refuses to do a paternity test, which just happens to mirror the scientific methods used by Arturo in his excavation projects, and serves as the bridge between the two plots.  This throws Janis for a loop, already raising the child alone, as Arturo is a married man, leaving her feeling more disconnected from him.  Ana’s mother, Teresa (Mother Teresa, get it?), played by Aitana Sánchez-Gijón, is anything but a saint, in fact she’s an actress, a diva in every respect, as her life continually swirls around herself, where her career is all that matters, cast as the lead in a Lorca drama, going on a theatrical tour, leaving her daughter behind to raise her own child by herself, abandoning her when she needs her the most.  Accordingly, a mystifyingly unfortunate tragedy occurs, leaving no rational explanation, no foul play – it simply happens.  Melodramas are born out of someone’s misfortune.  The entire film, however, reverberates around that confounding and inexplicable event, weaving layer upon layer of aftereffects that continually haunt each of the characters, reminding viewers that life, as well as history, continually throws us a curve, filled with buried secrets and repressed family dramas, with the director allowing these characters to take some solace and relief in each other, perhaps helping in the healing process.  This being an Almodóvar film, that healing takes different forms than might be expected, bringing the two women into closer proximity, with Ana actually moving into her home, allowing Janis to return to work, where one of the more tender scenes is Janis teaching Ana how to peel potatoes for a potato omelet in the sanctuary of the kitchen, a definitive female space in Almodóvar films, with words emblazoned on her T-shirt, “WE SHOULD ALL BE FEMINISTS.”  In this budding friendship, Ana reveals the cause of her initial trepidation in getting pregnant, yet another tragedy, but one all too familiar in the lives of women.  Like waves against the shore, both become mirror images of one another, where tenderness leads to affection, and even love, eventually sharing the same bed, developing a brazenly sexual love affair, beautifully realized through the music of Janis Joplin, after whom she was named, Janis Joplin - Summertime YouTube (4:00), heightening the sexual allure of the scene, a throwback to the free love era, yet meticulously done.  Ana seems more lovestruck in a dreamy kind of way, naïve and overly innocent, having never heard of Janis Joplin, overwhelmed by a maternal comfort and trust provided that was always missing with her own mother, while the more mature Janis has other options in play.  They soon go back to leading their own lives, yet come together in the end during a women’s solidarity march to the excavation site, a female re-enactment of Giuseppe Pellizza da Volpedo’s 1901 painting Il quarto stato (Original file).    

Almodóvar concocts a story about mothers searching for and then discovering terrible truths, where confronting their own personal tragedies frames a larger question about finding the hidden secrets of a nation that struggles to come to terms with the collective memory of the Spanish Civil War, and the 40 years of fascist dictatorship that ensued, as the streets of Madrid are named after the generals who displaced and killed thousands.  Spain is believed to have more mass graves than any country except Cambodia.  Part of the problem is there’s been no public funding for exhumations, so individuals or villages (which is what happens here) have had to scrape together funding from alternative, private sources, not really knowing where to start.  While the nation has taken strides to remove fascist shrines, in accordance with the Historical Memory Law, it was only in 2019 that Franco’s shrine was removed, following a long and controversial legal process, from the Valley of the Fallen, where it had become a far-right sanctuary, a fascist temple that exalted the memory of General Francisco Franco and his 36-year dictatorship.  Partly built by the forced labor of political prisoners, the entire grounds of the Valley of the Fallen covers more than 3,360 acres, and is Spain’s largest mass grave, containing the remains of more than 33,000 victims, so a story witnessing Janis bringing justice to her family feels deeply personal, particularly to viewers in Spain, where so many never had a single conversation about Franco or that time, where much of this history has been forgotten through political amnesia.  Accordingly, one of the more straightforward sections of the film leads back to the elderly women in Janis’s home town, speaking movingly about what losing their fathers and grandfathers meant to them.  All of which seems to suggest that fascist legacies continue, often in ways people can’t anticipate, corroding lives over decades and generations, where their descendants continue to be victims, as it still tears families apart even after all these years, haunting everyone else as well, right down to their private lives, and their collective psyches.  It’s worth pointing out that this film has had greater success in international festivals than in Spain itself, where it has not been a massive box office hit, suggesting Spain still remains deeply divided about the Franco historical past.  Janis, herself, offers a history lesson to young Ana, angrily reminding her that she needs to know what type of country she lives in.  Penélope Cruz has become associated with the voice of Almodóvar, appearing in 7 of his last 11 films, and nominated for a Best Actress award for her role here, yet much of this feels exaggerated and over-the-top, told with a melodramatic assurance, offering surprising revelations, dry humor, and unbridled emotion, all expressed through the saturated cinematography of José Luis Alcaine, filled with that strikingly bold color scheme from Antxón Gómez’s production design, and a percussive Hitchcockian score by Alberto Iglesias, which is particularly effective over the closing credits sequence, which is among the more cleverly designed sequences, filmed as if examining developing photographs, with animated writing on each frame.  Over the past forty years, Almodóvar’s  films have gone from wildly flamboyant and transgressive, filled with sexual deviations and rebellious asides, to a gradually more serious and contemplative aesthetic, where even in his most recent films, life is not what it seems, as Pain and Glory (Dolor y Gloria) (2019) plays with the viewer’s understanding of reality, moving in and out of time, altering one’s idea of memory, while in Julieta (2016), a middle-aged woman confronts the ghosts of her life.  Women throughout his career have always inhabited characteristics of a fearless strength, not always by choice, but they have adapted to the tragedies that have often overwhelmed them, finding a way to move on in their lives, as if unscathed from the stain of history.  Janis was raised by a grandmother who recalled the most intimate details of the war and lived most of her life under dictatorship, transferring her fierce independent values to Janis, who becomes an ardent proponent for her great-grandfather’s cause.  Conversely, Ana was raised by an indifferent and apolitical mother who never instilled her daughter with a sense of indignance for her country’s past evils, believing instead that “all actors are leftists,” which might suggest she’s right-leaning, yet, ironically, her big break came with a playwright shot by the fascists.  In this film, with Spain, along with other parts of Europe (and even America), presently undergoing a wave of neofascism, where Vox, the far-right party now in Spain, is dedicated to rewriting history from a very Franco-friendly point of view, claiming it was the Republicans that started the war, Almodóvar stares straight into the eye of that dilemma, declaring “No one in your family has told you the truth about your country.”  The personal and the political become an indistinguishable part of the Spanish nation’s collective psyche, where it is only by confronting the crimes of the past that Spain’s modern era population can hopefully address the future.  In today’s political reality, it is a human right of dignity that families have an opportunity in honoring and remembering the lives of those they have lost.

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