Alchemical Melodrama: Pedro Almodóvar's "Parallel Mothers"

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In a story of older and younger mothers, the Spanish auteur intertwines his country's dark past with challenges and hope for its future.

By Anthony Hawley

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. 

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