Decay and Renewal: Why Parallel Mothers is the War Film For Our Times

Decay and Renewal: Why Parallel Mothers is the War Film For Our Times

While Almodóvar’s new film begins as a seemingly unassuming family drama, it unfolds into a staggering tableau of Spain’s dark past under General Franco. It is thanks to the women at the film’s heart that Parallel Mothers offers moving commentary on legacy and war – Sarah Collier explains how it was achieved.

There is a moment in Pedro Almodóvar’s 2009 film Broken Embraces when Magdalena, played by Penelope Cruz, observes the intertwined bones of two bodies exhumed from the ground. They belong to lovers locked in a final embrace, engulfed and suspended in time by the lavas of Vesuvius. Magdalena watches this sequence, a scene from Roberto Rossellini’s Viaggio in Italia, on a small television screen in the arms of her own lover, Mateo, as they hide away in a cottage on Famara Beach. In this in-between space, itself a fossil of Lanzarote’s volcanic terrain, Magdalena and Mateo watch a narrative bearing the weight of a history which happened elsewhere, to other people, separate in time and space from their own abandoned lives.

Almodóvar returns to consider the act of observing history in Parallel Mothers. It is striking that Broken Embraces, so concerned by the spectatorship of lives from afar, twice makes reference to what was then a nascent Parallel Mothers (it appears both in screenplay and poster form as a film written by Broken Embraces’ protagonist).  But while Broken Embraces shows us fragments of stories pieced together voyeuristically from a distance, Parallel Mothers brings disparate stories and timelines intimately together, so that history feels bulbous, urgent, palpably close. Parallel Mothers’ elegant structural shifts enable the film to be many things at once, and the careful dialogue it stages between the ‘over here’ and the ‘over there’  make it a film fitting for our contemporary moment.

Parallel Mothers begins as a seemingly unassuming family drama before unfolding into a tableau of Spain’s painful history of war and rule under General Franco. Janis (Cruz) and Ana (Milena Smit) are new mothers, separated in age by around two decades, who meet in a maternity ward during the births of their daughters. As the title suggests, a delicious melodrama emerges from the women’s relationship: they live separately in age, social class and experience, yet a series of twists and turns brings their lives suddenly and irrevocably into tandem. It is a soulful, queer, female film that celebrates the joys of motherhood and places women at the heart of Spanish family, community and history.

Underpinning this plot of maternity and domesticity, though, is the constant hum of war. At the beginning of the film Janis meets Arturo, the future father of her child, who is a forensic anthropologist for the real-life Association for the Recovery of Historical Memory. Janis requests his help in locating and exhuming the unmarked grave of her great-grandfather, murdered by falangists in the Spanish Civil War. Janis’ daughter, then, is born from a traumatic past re-inscribed into the family’s present.

For the rest of the narrative Arturo is largely absent, choosing to remain loyal to his sick wife. Absent, too, is the father of Ana’s daughter – herself born from the violence and trauma of Ana’s rape. The absence of men is everywhere, scarring the narrative. Nowhere does this come into greater relief than in the film’s final few minutes, in the image of a whole community of generations of women, family portraits in hand, approaching in defiance and grief the graves of their male relatives.

Just as men leave a noisy silence in the film, so, for the large part, does war. Underneath the characters’ full, plentiful modern lives, the Spanish Civil War lies dormant, emerging now and again in an exchange, or a clipped fragment of speech. “This is a war,” Janis snaps, “that is not yet over.” Certainly, it cannot be over until the dead are found and laid to rest. Their memory is thus perpetually sustained; history undulates through the folds of the narrative so that the personal and collective traumas of war weigh heavily, even in their very absence. 

For Western contemporary audiences, war is observed as happening in the ‘over there’: it happens out of harm’s way, in another space, to other people but ourselves. We spectate through the warped windows of social media platforms, we discuss it among our peers with detached concern, maybe we post a hashtag or a slogan or some other empty symbol of feigned solidarity. Parallel Mothers shows this is not only a spatial but a temporal relation – for Ana, her country’s violent history is an anecdote, witnessed as disparately as any other conflict to make Western headlines in the 21st century, until her connection with Janis turns this around. 

The task of Parallel Mothers is to draw together the spatial and temporal coordinates anchoring Spanish national memory into a live, teeming, ineluctable now. This project of dynamic presence is rooted in the film’s attention to different modes of seeing. From Janis’ job as a photographer, to the grainy images reproduced on the baby monitor, to the constantly scrutinised iPhone photos central to the plot twist, Parallel Mothers is fascinated by fixing, framing and sharing images. Of particular importance to the film’s structure are the modest black and white portraits of Janis’ family that line the walls of her apartment. Set in block hydrant-red frames, they cut a striking image within the film’s mise-en-scène. This sharp contrast of the historic and the contemporary nudges us gently towards a lively, contemporaneous perspective on the old and the new. 

The photographs themselves get ample screen time: when Janis shows the portraits to Arturo, we see them for the first time too. The photos appear on the screen in sequence as if on a slideshow; each face is allowed to linger for us to study their aspect and individual expression. It is the sort of fourth-wall-breaking moment that cries for confrontation and reflection, as if Almodóvar is imploring us to witness this very human history for ourselves.

Parallel Mothers is propelled by the capture and exchange of images using technologies old and new. But despite this, the film seems insistent in its avoidance of social media. Popular platforms that now feel ubiquitous to recording, sharing, witnessing and interpreting the world are noticeably absent. In this narrative world, Almodóvar does not permit his characters to occupy the position of perverse spectator that has become the default mode of the detached, contemporary Western viewer. Instead, connecting with images forges a sense of rootedness; the stories they capture from the past help to sculpt, sustain and enliven experience in the present.

Parallel Mothers gains shape through its silences. It is a film about war which features neither men nor, really, war. Nor does it feature many of the conventions that characterise contemporary perspectives on conflict: dogmas, chest-beating, redemptive arcs, hysterical insincerity, hum, chatter, ‘discourse’. In the gaps left by these absences, though, is a full and vivid picture of trauma, healing, decay, renewal, flesh, blood, solitude and community. 

Towards the end of Parallel Mothers, in an image which sharply contrasts the TV screen and snug cottage setting of Broken Embraces, Janis stands with her community at the foot of her great-grandfather’s uncovered grave. From young to old, they take in the materiality of the history that has been excavated: the bones, a glass eyeball, a treasured child’s rattle. After a pan of these remains, the film is punctuated by a sequence of snapshots of Arturo and the grave’s excavators, alive, lying side by side in the space left by this grave. In this unsettling, regenerative imagery, Almodóvar fills the gaps left by this war and by the efforts to suppress its legacy. In doing so, Parallel Mothers helps sculpt national memory by exhuming the ties that bind the past and present, and fusing them with life.

Sarah Collier (@sarahcolr) is a doctoral researcher in contemporary fiction and film, specialising in representations of war and gender.

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