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Alchemical Melodrama: Pedro Almodóvar's "Parallel Mothers"

In a story of older and younger mothers, the Spanish auteur intertwines his country's dark past with challenges and hope for its future.
Anthony Hawley
Parallel Mothers
The first time I saw two men fucking each other onscreen was during my junior year of high-school in my AP Spanish language class at the all-boys Catholic school I attended. We were a small group that watched—about eight in total, and even the rule-breakers amongst us who sought to thwart Catholic dress codes and style regulations exuded palpable discomfort. For most of us, gay, straight, or otherwise, we’d only seen scenes of this sort stowed away in some private confines, purloined pornography or scrambled stations at our disposal. Something about the group viewing elicited a condition far more complex than our seventeen-year-old selves had words for, an emotional state that I might now locate at the crossroads of shame, involuntary defensiveness, delight, and a keen sense of not wanting to be either the first or last to react.
In retrospect, I can think of no better introduction to the singular vision of Pedro Almodóvar. Negotiating the laws of everyday, unfettered human desire and its many incarnations  in a world still darkened by the shadow of Roman Catholic law, unresolved post-Franco Spain, and unchecked (often violent) machismo is where the filmmaker excels. His tenacious, hybridized cloak-and-dagger plot structures infused with nervy camp always hold a convex mirror to the times. 
Even now, nearly forty years after the Spanish auteur’s early films, his newest offering, Parallel Mothers, intelligently and startlingly captures the deep anxieties of the 2020s. We are all chained to ideas of ourselves, but especially now we are chained to ideas of ourselves dispersed—in data, on social media platforms, as rendered by memes, as perceived by other generations, and captured by surveillance cameras. At the nexus of these diffuse avatars we find an entanglement laying the foundation for Parallel Mothers, a gripping film seeking to complete an excavation not only of unmarked graves left behind by the Franco regime, but also of figures lodged between an epoch’s conflicting views, misapprehensions, and bloodlines. 
Just as elsewhere, Almodóvar’s cosmos here brims with competing energies. Repressed memories and brutal abuses press against well-tended-to veneers and perfectly delectable pop palettes. Morphing mothers refuse their prescribed parts, and, in turn, form new unions, less nuclear, more reactive. Cases of mistaken identity, unexpected infant deaths, tales of absentee guardians and badly behaving men and boys, Parallel Mothers has no shortage of life-altering mix-ups and traumatizing travesties. 
But as I was re-watching the movie this past week (after my initial viewing this fall at the New York Film Festival) it was the subtler contradictions that struck me: Janis (Penélope Cruz’s character) explaining to her younger counterpart Ana (Milena Smit) that she would teach her “how to run a house and cook” and care for her child while wearing a white t-shirt with the slogan “we should all be feminists” printed in all caps. Teresa (Aitana Sánchez-Gijón), Ana’s self-absorbed, elitist mother, reproaching Ana, “You’re working as a maid. Did we give you an education for that?” when maids in Almodóvar’s movies are some of the most astute advisers, key confidants and sneaky sleuths nosing out goings-on behind closed doors. All these forensic details fuel the autopsy Almodóvar performs on maternity, family, and national politics.  
One of the most superlative incidents rendering the intergenerational divides comes in an expectant episode at Janis’ home after she and Anna share dinner. It’s a steamy scene without steam per se. Both mothers are relaxed, having a drink, nestling closer than they have before, closer even than when they were in the hospital about to give birth to daughters on the same day. They sit, listening to music, gazing at a picture on Janis’ wall. We see a grainy black and white photograph of a carefree woman outdoors amidst a crowd, laughing, cocktail in hand, infant child swaddled inside a sling over her shoulder. “Who’s that hippy in the photo,” asks Ana. Janis Joplin wails in the background as the women chat. “That’s my mother,” replies Janis, and the baby, we come to find out, is Janis herself. As Joplin’s incomparable croon fills the diegetic airwaves during this instant, Janis shares that her own motherdied of an overdose at 27 (like Joplin) and that she herself was named after the late rock n’ roller. “Who’s Janis Joplin?” replies Ana confusedly. 
The question is key. Simple as it may seem, I take this detail to represent a much larger set of incongruences between the two single mothers. Gen-Z Ana has no idea who this singer-songwriter is, an infamous cultural icon for Janis, nevermind for her mother’s moment in time. Ana is missing an awareness of critical bits of cultural history. Janis, however, heralds from a period closer to the Gen X/Millennial cusp, which straddles her worldview across the 20th and 21st centuries. But while Janis possesses an awareness of multiple eras as one from that generation might, she also carries with her the weight of unresolved questions from previous decades. Janis has her own set of lacunae: namely an absent, mythologized father she never met, and most importantly, a great-grandfather executed by the Franco regime who, to this day, remains in an unspecified grave. 
“You’re obsessed with that grave. You have to look to the future,” yells Ana later during a heated exchange. Too mired in uncovering the past? Perhaps, but Janis counters by calling out Ana’s grasp of war-time atrocities: “No one in your family has told you the truth about this country.” Ironically, while Ana won’t focus on former times—her own or Spain’s—it’s onlyJanis’ revealing an awful saga that allows Ana to get her own child returned. So, in fact, Ana must dig back whereas Janis has to learn to look to the youth for cues. As an emotional Ana says to Janis after learning the truth about her own child, “You never thought about me?” Parallels, as the title suggests, yes, but gaps too. It’s both the rhyming—legions of single mothers, daughters born on the same day, accidental pregnancies—and the inability to line up visions that make the story so nuanced.
Has the speed of melodrama always outpaced that of life? Or is it so because it reflects our lived experiences? I’ve considered this often recently. How is cinematic melodrama meant to keep pace with the melodrama of our current lived reality—our 4chans, Twitch broadcasts, and TikTok starlets; our Ghislane Maxwells, Tucker Carlsons, and Bolsonaros; the weekly nasal swabs, temperature checks, and all-consuming yearning for results, be they from COVID tests, ancestry.com, or the dogged comments thread economy? Just reading this list of leitmotifs and players is both paralyzing and numbing. 
In its alchemized Almodóvarian form, melodrama broadens the depths of our historical present. In a sense, I think the shock value of Parallel Mothers is just as potent as my initial viewing of The Law of Desire (1987) in a Catholic boys school setting. Almodóvar has traded out the bawdy Chauceresque interlopers of earlier films for a cast of characters who profoundly echo each other while always remaining slightly out of sync. They do so in some measure because they are jammed between an ascendant culture always on display and a syndicate of political skeletons they continue to conceal or know nothing about. It goes without saying that the Spanish filmmaker has always harnessed the tempo and cadence of soaps and telenovellas: the urgent, winded delivery of lines; the ease of intrigue owing as much to sultry Italian giallo thrillers as to Hitchcockian maneuvers. But ever eager to reinvent his own sui generis style, the director has dissected all the idiosyncrasies of our horrifying moment  and absorbed the accelerated speed of the constant barrage. The result: an acutely self-aware fusion, always a little bit ahead of the curve, forging unresolved terrain especially with its final shot, an open question meant to stir our dead. 

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