By Rosie Harrison-Nirawan
'No history is mute. No matter how much they burn it, break it, and lie about it, human history refuses to shut its mouth. Despite deafness and ignorance, the time that was continues to tick inside the time that is.’ – Eduardo Galeano
So reads the unexpected call to arms that ends Pedro Almodóvar’s most recent melodrama, Parallel Mothers, an exploration of a bond between two women experiencing the highs and lows of new motherhood.
The film’s pacey opening sees Janis, a confident photographer in her mid-30s with a stylish Madrid apartment, asking forensic archaeologist Arturo to assist in her plan to excavate the mass grave of her great-grandfather who was killed during the Spanish Civil War. This provides the first bookend to the secondary storyline that will also close the film and make it the powerful manifesto that it is.
In the meantime, viewers are caught up in a sensational story of babies accidentally swapped at birth, maternity tests, two complexly navigated love affairs and strained parent-child relations. Between Janis and the contrastingly young, unstable, and still maturing Ana, this forms the bulk of the two-hour film, characterised by loving shots of contemporary Madrid life filtered through a Miró-inspired colour palette. Littered throughout are various scenes of casual cotton-swabbing, DNA collecting; Almodóvar pays close attention to this, which, for a film about the intense emotional connections formed between mother and child, initially seems a somewhat sterile addition to what is otherwise a deeply sensitive meditation on the non-scientific elements to love and care.
But what eventually becomes clear is that what we’re really being asked to see is how nobody really knows who they are or where they came from in any scientific, nationalist nor personal sense of the term. We frequently hear of how Janis had never met her father and barely knew her mother, whilst Ana’s contempt for her mother stems from an unknowing about her personal life beyond her role as mother. In a crucial scene about love and relationships, Janis scathingly tells Ana that the young woman does not really know anything about who her father is in the context of Spanish political history, alluding to his possible connections with Falangists. Equally, of course, Janis and Ana do not know who their babies ‘are’ in a scientific, DNA sense, only that they love them. The eventual relationship that temporarily blooms between the two female protagonists is yet another exploration of identity, who we are, and who we love – as well as the connections between these.
The final chunk of the film sees Arturo and Janis finally completing the excavation of the grave that has haunted the small, southern village for so long: this act is both emotional and highly political. Various characters relate their stories of how loved ones were taken, leaving no trace, seemingly removed from history. And yet they are so present in the contemporary imagination. Only in digging things back up can they be truly understood and laid to rest.
It is in these final moments that the real connection between Janis and Ana’s experiences of motherhood truly map onto a greater, national scale. Almodóvar tells us that the personal is indeed political. National grievances are indeed individual. In order for a nation to know its history, its connections and its traumas, people indeed must do this too, in ways that are at once difficult and sacrificial.
The quote that viewers are left with then becomes such a mighty expression from this great filmmaker, leaving no doubts as to why it received a nine-minute standing ovation upon its premiere. The real parallel of the film lies not so much in Janis and Ana – two women who are in fact ultimately more united than separated in their mutual love for their children and connection to modern femininity – but rather between personal identity and national identity.