The first time I saw Penélope Cruz’s face, contorted and weeping, was during the brief opening sequence of Pedro Almodóvar’s 1997 film, Live Flesh. Cruz plays a sex worker who gives birth on Christmas (to a boy who will be the movie’s protagonist) on a bus in the middle of the night. Hollywood hadn’t yet typecast her as a manic-dreamy Spanish sex symbol, and I remember being struck—then, and again in Almodóvar’s 1999 masterwork, All About My Mother—by her odd, disarming configuration of flesh and bone. With her big sad eyes, long nose, and jutting lips, she looked awkward and almost comically defenseless. Cruz could have been a major star in the silent era—she can crack you up or break you open with a look.
What I hadn’t recalled about Live Flesh, a characteristically bright-colored, poppy, lurid confection of sexual obsession and revenge based on a Ruth Rendell novel, was that it begins under Franco. It’s 1970, and a “state of exception” restricts freedom of speech and association. In one shot, the bus Cruz is on when she goes into labor pulls away to reveal graffiti on a wall that reads LIBERTAD / ABAJO EL ESTADO DE ESCEPCIÓN! (Liberty, down with the state of exception!)
Such direct references to history and politics have been relatively rare in Almodóvar’s work. Having grown up in mid-century conservative rural Spain, he emerged as part of La Movida, the transgressive cultural flowering that took place in Madrid after Franco’s regime ended with his death in 1975. Amid a scene that mixed alternative theater, punk rock, and porn, Almodóvar began making Super-8s and then features in the vein of directors like John Waters. In frantically paced, anti-realist, anti-patriarchal, and often farcical early movies, he sought out every possible taboo to bust, appropriated and inverted Franco-era Spanish kitsch, and blended it all with the tropes of classic melodrama and noir. (The Roman Catholic Church is a favorite target, but there’s also Matador, in which a serial-killing woman brandishes her hairpin as a weapon in the style of a bullfighter.)
If Almodóvar’s anarchic, sensual early work has often been interpreted as a response to Francoist repression, his emphasis on social and sexual freedoms, hedonism, and psychological idiosyncrasies nonetheless tended to be received as apolitical. That held true as Almodóvar developed a richer, more melancholic and emotionally sophisticated mode, and secured his place as the most internationally famous filmmaker of La Movida (and probably Spain as a whole). Still, many of his films unfold in an almost aggressively fluid and feminine world, in which the interests and pleasures and difficulties of women, and femmes in particular, determine everything. (By the same token, you might sometimes detect an edge of misogyny in reactions to his work, both positive and negative—an assumption of unseriousness, indiscipline, morbid aestheticism, fantastical inwardness.) In that sense, his preoccupation with performance and artifice feels more like an examination of the conditions of everyday life than a retreat from them.
Almodóvar’s new film, Parallel Mothers, is both a departure and a return. It closes with a quotation from the Uruguayan leftist Eduardo Galeano about the persistence of the past within us, and takes the legacies of fascism in Spain as an explicit subject. The film begins when Penélope Cruz’s character, Janis, a middle-aged photographer, is sent to profile a handsome forensic archaeologist, Arturo (Israel Elejalde). In the course of the assignment, she seeks his help in exhuming and identifying the remains of her murdered great-grandfather, one of the more than 100,000 missing Spaniards dumped in mass graves during the civil war. Their detailed discussion of this history unapologetically takes up a big chunk of the movie’s opening, before Almodóvar sends Janis into more familiar terrain: An affair with the married Arturo leaves her pregnant, and at the clinic where she gives birth, she befriends another single mother-to-be, an unhappy teenager named Ana (Milena Smit), whose own mother is mostly absent, preoccupied with the late and sudden flourishing of her career as a stage actress.
Arturo continues his quest to uncover Janis’s great-grandfather’s remains, but most of the film’s run time is devoted to a version of a classic Almodóvarian formula: women building alternate family structures together as they contend with various soapy plot developments. Although the movie’s effects feel remarkably not reliant on these developments, I won’t spoil them here. Suffice it to say that there ensue romantic disappointments; secrets, deceptions, and mistaken identities; intergenerational conflicts and sufferings; a tragic death that compounds the impossibility of emotional resolution; semi-incestuous–seeming sexual entanglements in which painful legacies must be worked through.
The decision to draw such a clear connection between the personal troubles of individuals and families and the ills of an entire country is a bold one that can’t help but cast a strange light back on some of Almodóvar’s earlier works. His Hitchcockian interest in intergenerational trauma, compulsive repetition, secrets festering for years—sometimes pretty much out in the open yet insistently unacknowledged—may now seem to take on a more nationally specific valence. Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Conformist comes to mind, as the great model for a cinematic mapping of fascism’s psychosexual pathologies. I also think of an interview from a few years ago in which Almodóvar cited the director Luis García Berlanga as one of the two great wellsprings of Spanish cinema (the other and far more inter-nationally celebrated being the surrealist Luis Buñuel): He praised Berlanga’s 1963 The Executioner for the delicacy with which it eluded the censors’ grasp, the “amazing sleight of hand” it must have taken to make such a film under Franco, presenting a sharp treatment of the death penalty as a “comedy of manners.” This admiration for appealingly disguised political courage is intriguing, coming from a master of the sex comedy. Of course, Almodóvar has no censors to fear, and yet throughout his exuberantly noisy body of work, the theme of something coded or long unspoken recurs with striking regularity—as if constitutive to a sensibility forged in his particular time and place.
Political allegory is tricky to pull off. It can feel preachy or manipulative. Or it can simply risk removing any sense that something urgent is at stake, when an audience is invited to understand the action primarily at the level of metaphor. Does anyone feel much for the denizens of Animal Farm? And I might have been able to relax more into the genre pleasures of Tom McCarthy’s recent drama, Stillwater, had I not been distracted by the suspicion that the movie was positioning itself as some bien-pensant statement about U.S. foreign policy. In the case of Almodóvar, I also feel a reflexive resistance to the idea of having to reread him too thoroughly through this historical lens—as if that would confirm the concerns of his theatrical femme-world as trivial, not worth representing after all; as if our fights and illnesses and rapes should always double as an analogy for something more significant.
Yet, while I actually watched Parallel Mothers, none of that unease seemed to kick in. I did sense that I was seeing the trappings of melodrama without its usual function. The suspense that such plots generally rely on feels unnecessary here—you can guess some of the revelations in store before they happen, and that doesn’t ruin anything; in fact, it sharpens the tragic irony. The film’s most striking accomplishment is that its conceit allows its historical and more intimate strands to heighten and enrich one another. That’s a credit to Cruz, whose performance anchors both these dimensions.
But it appears as well to be a sign of Almodóvar’s belief in and commitment to his own metaphor—his conviction, perhaps, that this isn’t just a device he happens to have chosen, but a part of Spain’s everyday reality. During a pivotal argument, Janis confronts Ana over her complicity in her family of origin’s insistent blindness to Spain’s shameful history: You have to understand what kind of country you’re living in, the older woman says, with evident feeling, implying a personal, intimate necessity as well as a moral obligation. So many thousands are still “missing,” leaving families unable to comprehend their own histories; only in 2019 were Franco’s remains removed, over considerable objections, from the Valley of the Fallen, where they had become an unofficial far-right shrine. Political amnesia, in other words, is an active, ongoing project in which whole societies participate. Parallel Mothers would seem to suggest that fascist legacies continue, in unpredictable ways, to deform people’s lives over decades and generations—the descendants of the immediate victims, and everyone else as well, down to their private lives, their psyches. It’s an alarming idea. And while it needn’t alter your interpretation of Almodóvar’s other works, it may help explain their eerie, painful resonance.