What do feminists, kitchens, and Spain’s ongoing historical trauma have to do with each other? In an Almodóvar film, well, everything. Pedro Almodóvar has been making genre-, gender-, and boundary-pushing cinema for forty-two years—nearly the entire post-Franco period—during which time he has released an impressive twenty-two (and a half) feature films. Yet, it is only now, with Madres paralelas (Parallel Mothers, 2021), that the director directly tackles the most painful remnant of Spain’s history, one that continues to fuel present-day divisions: the mass graves that hold the bodies of those disappeared by the Franco regime and the efforts to exhume and identify the bodies such that their family members may give them a proper resting place. Focusing on Parallel Mothers, Carla Marcantonio offers a survey of Almodóvar’s engagement with history and memory, as well as feminism and kitchens, over the course of his long career.
It has been eighty-six years since the start of the Spanish Civil War and forty-seven years since General Francisco Franco died, releasing Spain from the grip of his repressive and violent thirty-six-year dictatorship. Pedro Almodóvar has been making genre-, gender-, and boundary-pushing cinema for forty-two years—nearly the entire post-Franco period—during which time he has released an impressive twenty-two (and a half) feature films. Yet, it is only now, with Madres paralelas (Parallel Mothers, 2021), that the director directly tackles the most painful remnant of Spain’s history, one that continues to fuel present-day divisions: the mass graves that hold the bodies of those disappeared by the Franco regime and the efforts to exhume and identify the bodies such that their family members may give them a proper resting place. (Some 114,000 bodies are estimated to have been dumped into ditches between 1936 and 1951.)
In his interviews, Almodóvar has frequently stated that he believes that the chapter of Spain’s civil war will not close, nor the country fully heal, until families are able to recover the remains of their grandparents and great-grandparents. For him, the issue is far from being an ideological or political one. It is a profoundly human one, in that people are merely calling for the right to be able to place flowers at tombstones, honoring and remembering the lives of those they lost.
Moreover, he sees it as a moral debt, and maintains that until it is settled, Spain cannot consider the civil war to be ended. Inevitably, one is reminded of the insight-turned-credo by feminist trailblazers: that the personal is political. It is an ethos to which the director himself has subscribed—explicitly or not—throughout his career. If he perhaps does not consider it an ideological stance, he nonetheless has employed it as an ethical and world-building perspective. Given the historical context of Parallel Mothers, it is also notable that this Almodóvar film, unlike any other, has a scene in which it is the wardrobe that carries meaning, explicitly, with words emblazoned on a T-shirt, forthrightly placed center frame: “WE SHOULD ALL BE FEMINISTS.”
So spell the black letters on the white shirt that Janis, the character played by Penélope Cruz, wears while she is seen in her kitchen, teaching her younger counterpart in motherhood, Ana (Milena Smit), how to cook a quintessentially Spanish dish, tortilla de patata. These scenes between the two of them in the kitchen establish the mentoring and caretaking role that Janis performs for Ana. But they also return the viewer to a place that has always been marked as a feminine space of power within the Almodóvar universe: the kitchen. Those spaces have included Gloria’s kitchen, where she (Carmen Maura) kills her husband with a ham bone in What Have I Done to Deserve This? (1984); Pepa’s kitchen, where she (again Maura) concocts her gazpacho spiked with sleeping pills in Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown (1988); and Raimunda’s kitchen in Volver (2006), where she (Cruz again) finds her husband’s dead body, which she then successfully hides in another kitchen freezer and finally buries anonymously in a riverbed.
In Parallel Mothers, the kitchen is the place not of murder but of revelations—where Janis tells Arturo (Israel Elejalde), the father of her child, that she’s pregnant and proclaims her independence, vowing to forge forward with a baby whose timing he doesn’t like; where Ana first makes her attraction to Janis explicit, leading the two to become lovers; and much later, where a conversation between the women becomes the catalyst for the unveiling of Janis’s secret and the unburdening of her guilt.
What do feminists, kitchens, and Spain’s ongoing historical trauma have to do with each other? In an Almodóvar film, well, everything.
The film’s title most obviously refers to the two mothers in the film, Ana and Janis, who give birth on the same day. The two women first coincide in a hospital room where they are scheduled to give birth, each having become pregnant by accident. Janis, the older of the two, is having the baby by choice. Her younger counterpart, Ana, appears scared and regretful. They bond in the hospital, and from there, their lives become fatefully intertwined.
“Parallel” of the title also refers to the two separate plot lines in the film. The relationship between the two mothers makes up the bulk of the story that the movie tells. The other story, though, bookends the film: Janis’s quest to excavate the mass grave where her great-grandfather is thought to be buried and have his remains exhumed and identified, alongside those of other men who disappeared from their homes on the same night. Almodóvar has shared that this plot is relegated to the opening and closing scenes of the film because of how its topic had the power to completely overtake and distract from the main story line—given how it delves into wounds that run deep and have yet to heal in the Spanish psyche and the nation’s political reality.
The history of those who were disappeared during the civil war and the decades that followed is one painful enough to breed division. But the schism that plagues present-day Spain more likely dates back to its democratic transition and the Amnesty Law of 1977, which forged what is more popularly called the “pact of forgetting,” whereby all political parties agreed to put the civil war and the dictatorship behind them and which granted amnesty for crimes committed under Franco’s rule. To face the past was labeled a reopening of old wounds—an adage still repeated by those on the political right today.
Almodóvar grants that the Amnesty Law was perhaps necessary in the very early years of Spain’s democracy, but he considers the political left to be partially complicit in allowing amnesty to last well beyond this initial stage, given its decade-long inaction when it had a governmental majority and thus could have pursued policies to condemn perpetrators and exhume the mass graves. The director feels strongly that the late 1980s or early 1990s were the time to address this issue, but that didn’t happen. In fact, it wasn’t until 2007—thirty years after democratic rule was established—that the government of José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero passed the Historical Memory Law, which tasked local administrations and nonprofit organizations such as the Association for the Recovery of Historical Memory (ARMH) to cooperate with families in the search for victims of the Franco regime. It also required statues, plaques, and other symbols of the dictatorship to be removed from public buildings. But in placing the burden on the families, it proved not effective enough.
Almodóvar, too, has become inextricably tied to Spain’s transition to democracy. His own involvement in the counterculture movement at that time, La Movida, and his steady rise to fame and international acclaim have cemented him as the best-known and most influential artist of this period. His films’ propensity for bringing the marginal to the center and upending and poking fun at normative structures has made them political acts in themselves and contributed to a cultural and social renewal in Spain, just as democracy became synonymous with the arrival of more open and tolerant social mores. Part of Almodóvar’s rebellion toward the past and toward everything Franco stood for was his determination to pretend, as he has said many times, that the dictator had never existed. When it came to Franco, Almodóvar’s stories performed the “pact of forgetting” writ large. This stance was underlined in his films by an almost comedic retort, uttered any time a dead father was mentioned: “Your father, may he rest in peace,” delivered perfunctorily and without affect.
In his interviews, Almodóvar states that his initial stance was possible at a time when he was young and relishing the very freedoms that his early films portray and that were made possible by Franco’s death. But once the resurgent rise of the political right was evident, he became increasingly preoccupied with addressing the topic of the historical past, particularly the controversy surrounding a topic that he deems should be neither political, ideological, nor controversial: identifying and exhuming the mass graves scattered around the Spanish countryside.
Almodóvar’s films have always kept pace with the pulse of current events around him—a stunning fact for a writer-director who can spend eight to ten years developing a script. For example, Bad Education (2004) is the script that took him the longest to develop—fourteen years—and yet, when released in 2004, it seemed to speak directly to the recent revelations and scandals of sexual abuse that had plagued the Catholic Church in the years just prior to the film’s release.
Parallel Mothers is set between 2016 and 2019, just before the passing of the Democratic Memory Law—and before the COVID pandemic. The Democratic Memory Law crucially addresses the limitations of the Historical Memory Law of 2007 in that it takes the burden away from the families and the NGOs working with them and finally places the responsibility for exhuming all the graves and identifying all the victims on the state. The law was introduced in 2020 and ratified in July 2021, though Spain’s right wing is still threatening to have it repealed. The film thus speaks to the period just before the Democratic Memory Law was introduced, in part to highlight and acknowledge the weight carried for way too long by the families of those who still lie, unidentified, condemned by Franco to a kind of nonexistence.
Penélope Cruz reminded Almodóvar during the course of an interview that he had first mentioned the idea for a film about “parallel mothers” to her during the shooting of All About My Mother in 1998. At the time, the director mentioned that he would want her to play the younger mother; some twenty years later, though, he has instead cast her as the elder one. He is known for his lengthy writing process. Signposts of this are even placed on-camera in some of his films. In Broken Embraces (2009), for example, there is a poster of a film on a wall that the film’s protagonist, Mateo Blanco (Lluís Omar), has purportedly directed: Madres paralelas. The director had by then started writing this film’s script.
One challenge that Almodóvar, as screenwriter, faced when he set out to write a story that addressed the historical past in Parallel Mothers was how to bring that history to bear on the present-day story of his characters. He did this by building a connective thread from the character of Janis to the grandmother who raised her, the grandmother who was only a child when the Falangists took her father away from the dinner table, never to be seen again. In the film, the approximate location of the mass grave, somewhere on the outskirts of the small town where the film is set, was revealed by a man who survived the executions and was able to crawl out of the burial ditch unseen. Finding and exhuming her great-grandfather is the legacy that her grandmother has left to her.
Here, Almodóvar’s decades-long championing of women’s ability to forge community and create solidarity takes on specific intergenerational import. As if to further highlight this kind of interconnectivity between present and past, he has also cast two ensemble actresses from his earlier films: Rossy de Palma (first introduced to Almodóvar’s cinematic universe in Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown in 1988) and Julieta Serrano (who appears in a brief role in his first feature, Pepi, Luci, Bom and Other Girls Like Mom  and most recently played the director’s own mother in his semiautobiographical Pain and Glory ). In Parallel Mothers, de Palma plays Janis’s loyal and supportive friend Elena, who also seems to be her boss. At the end of the film, Elena is one of the women leading the procession to the newly excavated mass grave. Serrano has a cameo at the end of the film as well: she is one of the people from whom Janis collects oral testimony and DNA samples.
As with the somber tone of this film, the comedic roles the actresses played in the director’s early films are relegated to the past: there is no hint here of Serrano’s drug-pushing mother superior (Dark Habits, 1983) and raving-mad Lucía (Women on the Verge) or de Palma’s snobby yet virginal Marisa (also in Women on the Verge). Instead, despite their brief appearances, there is a felt sense of how much they have come to belong to the director’s own affective universe, his cinematic DNA. This time, de Palma’s solidarity and caretaking role is underlined, whereas Serrano’s cameo leaves the audience with a portending sense of loss. Years have passed, and Almodóvar’s camera seems to reverently bow, in gratitude.
DNA testing, in fact, is a critical trope that provides a bridge between the film’s two “parallel” plots. Beyond its use as scientific veracity, the director also turns to its truth-telling capacity for storytelling purposes. The ability to unequivocally identify bodies that have laid in a grave for eighty-five years would be impossible without this technology, and it is thus key to the efforts of recovering those who were forcibly disappeared. But he also employs the technology for dramatic effect in the present-day story of the mothers who give birth on the same day, at the same hospital.
Janis has become pregnant after pursuing an affair with a married man, Arturo, who is also the forensic anthropologist that she has hired to help her exhume the grave site outside her grandmother’s hometown. She has happily embraced her forthcoming role as single mother. When Arturo meets his would-be daughter, Cecilia, he does not recognize himself in her and questions her parentage—something that deeply offends Janis. Ana, on the other hand, is traumatized by her pregnancy: she appears frightened and unsure; but Janis cheers her on and provides her with the warmth and support that Ana’s own mother, Teresa (Aitana Sánchez Gijon), seems incapable of delivering.
Spoiler alert: unbeknownst to the two mothers, the babies had accidentally been switched on the day of their birth. When the mothers meet again some months later, Ana tells Janis about the heartbreaking, sudden death of her baby. Janis follows a hunch and has a DNA test performed on Cecilia whereby she learns that she herself is not the baby’s biological mother. Later, without explaining why, she takes a DNA sample from Ana that unequivocally reveals that Ana is Cecilia’s biological parent. Janis, already deeply bonded to the baby, keeps this truth from Ana.
The romantic relationship that Ana and Janis begin shortly thereafter thus serves to cement tragedy with silence—and generates the moral dilemma at the heart of the film, one that provides an ethical and emotional bridge between the two story lines. Janis is a woman now torn between her pursuit of historical truth and its concealment in her personal life. Her predicament thus overlaps in masterful and profound ways with the story of the exhumation of her great-grandfather’s mass grave—and beyond it, with the larger moral, political, and human dilemma that continues to face Spain as it remains divided over this topic.
Many have been calling this the director’s first political film. Though it is certainly the film that most directly addresses the topic of historical memory, the past is a topic that has slowly been boiling up to the surface of his films.
Starting as long ago as Live Flesh (1997), the director has been conjuring up the past. When interviewers have asked him about addressing the past so explicitly in Parallel Mothers for the first time, Almodóvar has replied that, actually, the first time he did so was in Live Flesh: it opens in 1970 on the day that the minister of the interior declares a state of emergency (one destined to be Spain’s last). The film’s protagonist, Victor (Liberto Rabal), is born on that day, as citizens’ freedoms are suspended and the streets are empty. The film closes with the adult Victor taking his pregnant wife to the hospital: his son will be born during Spain’s democracy, with streets buzzing with people and life. This is the first time, also, that the director cast Penélope Cruz in one of his films (playing the baby Victor’s mother; she appears in her Almodóvar debut for only eight minutes).
Two years later, in a scene in All About My Mother (1999) in which a different configuration of “parallel mothers” gathers around a hospital bed on the event of a birth, Manuela (Cecilia Roth) tells Sister Rosa (Cruz), “Let’s not talk about sad things, today is a great day, Videla is in jail and your son is going to be born.” The reference is to General Jorge Rafael Videla, the Argentine general who oversaw the tortures, kidnappings, and disappearances that took place during the time known as the Dirty War.
Here, Almodóvar builds a transnational allegiance. Manuela and Lola/Esteban (the father of both Manuela’s and Rosa’s sons) are both Argentines who relocated to Spain. Cecilia Roth, who plays the title character, is a longtime Almodóvar collaborator who arrived in Spain in 1976 after fleeing the Argentinian dictatorship. In fact, Spain has imported the term desaparecidos (the disappeared) from Latin America—from Argentina and Chile in particular.
All About My Mother further codes historical references in the casting choice of Fernando Fernán Gómez, who plays sister Rosa’s father. Among Gómez’s many notable achievements during his prolific career, which spanned the Franco years, was his role in Victor Erice’s landmark The Spirit of the Beehive (1973), a film that addresses and condemns life under the fascist regime, through the use of metaphor and allegory that managed to bypass the censors. In All About My Mother, Gómez plays a man suffering from Alzheimer’s who no longer recognizes his own daughter. Despite the role, he is an actor whom audiences recognize. His ghostlike presence in the film paradoxically channels this contradiction, allowing Almodóvar to conjure the specter of the past and begin to push at the need to recover historical memory.
In retrospect, most of his films in the following two decades have in one way or another been conjuring the past. Volver (2006) revolved around a would-be ghost: a mother who returns from the “dead” to right the sins of the past. In this film, the question of where people are or aren’t buried and the identity of who lies in what grave (or in what freezer-tomb) is at the center of both the drama and the comedy of the film. Broken Embraces (2009) includes a scene from Journey to Italy (Roberto Rossellini, 1954) in which the characters witness the unearthing of a grave where two lovers died, calcinated by lava in Pompeii, in an image that now can be seen to have presaged the closing shots of Parallel Mothers. Finally, The Skin I Live In (2011) flips the narrative: it revolves around a young man, Vicente (Jan Cornet), who upon being subjectively deemed guilty of a rape is summarily kidnapped, tortured, and, in essence, “disappeared” by an authoritarian figure (Dr. Ledgard, played by Antonio Banderas). His captor-executioner subjects him to multiple plastic surgeries that irrevocably change his sex and identity. His mother keeps going to the authorities requesting that his body be recovered, to no avail.
Parallel Mothers, though, makes manifest that which was only haunting the edges of these Almodóvar films since Live Flesh: its politics materializes in the most direct address the director has ever given to Spain’s painful history.
Far from the kitchen and the intimacy that are central to how the director tackles this history, and beyond the causal and intergenerational links to the past, the audience is tasked with accessing the film through emotion. Feeling the impact of the moral questions that reside at the core of the controversy over the recovery of the disappeared, viewers must shed their own tears at the moral dilemma that besets Janis, a personal one that closely echoes the historical one. This is the work of melodrama, a genre that the director has long mastered and here elevates to its full political and transformative potential.
Almodóvar considers Janis perhaps the most difficult role he has ever written—and he knew that he was tasking his muse, Penélope Cruz, with a character who ran counter to her own personality and constitution, as a human being and as a mother. This would not be a simple undertaking, given the deep sense of guilt that plagues her character—a monumental accomplishment for Cruz.
The role of Ana would be a complex one to cast, too, particularly because the character’s youth would require that an inexperienced actress play alongside the accomplished Cruz. Milena Smit had one film (David Victori’s Cross the Line ) to her credit, cast when Victori plucked her from Instagram. She went on to receive the Best Emerging Actress award at the Spain’s Goya Awards and impressed Almodóvar with her photogeneity and visceral understanding of Ana’s emotional predicament.
Like the character she plays, Smit belongs to a generation who think little of the historical past. Almodóvar grants that today’s youth have plenty of other imminent problems to worry about, from the climate crisis to an unprecedented jobless rate, all of which make their future uncertain. Nonetheless, he hopes that his film can speak to this younger generation, who he feels need to understand that many of the social and political problems Spain now faces have their roots in the as yet unresolved divisions that date back to the civil war.
Not only are Penélope Cruz and Milena Smit two actors from diametrically opposite universes; so are the characters that they play: Janis represents the political left, invested in disinterring mass graves, while Ana has inherited the point of view of her parents, both of whom belong to the political right. Her mother, Teresa, a theater actress and absent parent, shares with Janis that she’s “apolitical” because her job is to be liked by everyone. Superficially comedic, this line of dialogue and her use of the term “apolitical,” Almodóvar explains, show that she is conservative leaning, as it’s a phrase used by the right. Even the fact that the role she wants to perform is from a Federico García Lorca play from 1935, Doña Rosita the Spinster, runs true to Spain’s contradictory reality: even though he is the most famous of those disappeared during the civil war whose body has not yet been found, the right claims Lorca as a national poet and playwright.
The film’s pivotal scene occurs in the kitchen one evening when Ana questions Janis about Arturo’s visit the day before. Janis shares that he and his team have been granted permission to exhume Janis’s great-grandfather’s gravesite. Almost in kneejerk fashion, Ana tells Janis that digging into the past only serves to reopen old wounds—a phrase that, for decades, has been employed by the right in its effort to annul the efforts of the left.
As separated by their viewpoints as they are by the kitchen counter around which they stand, Janis lectures Ana about her need to be better informed about where her family stood during the civil war and the ensuing decades of the dictatorship. It is at that moment that Janis recognizes her own lies and breaks her silence, finally revealing her secret to Ana, who, understandably upset and feeling betrayed, resolves to leave with the baby. Janis, finally released from the guilt she’s harbored, breaks down in a sea of tears.
The true impact of this scene resides less in the information exchanged than in the actions that Janis takes while begging Ana not to go: she methodically helps Ana put on the baby carrier and helps place “her” beloved daughter in it to be taken away, in gestures that brim with as much emotion as political meaning. Through this pain and her reparative act, Almodóvar acknowledges the deep personal pain and sacrifice that will be required for a national reconciliation to take place as well.
The film continues to employ temporal ellipses that shepherd the viewer toward its conclusion—changing its tonal register at its final stretch, however, to become more documentary-like. Janis begins to assist Arturo in his efforts by interviewing family members and collecting DNA samples. Though none of the testimonials are ascribed to any actual living relatives, Almodóvar has stated that all were taken from actual accounts. These statements, which lack any investment in the settling of scores, do not engage in any fantasies of revenge, either. Notably, Cruz has shared that her own great-grandfather met the same fate as that of her fictional character’s.
This on-screen slippage between documentary and fiction spills over into another present-day reference: it ought to be impossible for any audience member watching the film not to associate the Q-tip sampling that Janis administers for DNA collection with the PCR-testing protocols of the COVID pandemic. Almodóvar stated the he chose to end the period covered by Parallel Mothers in 2019 to avoid the anticinematic and unphotogenic effects of mask wearing in the film. Yet even his avoidance grants the film added power, reminding its audiences to what an extent everyone can be vulnerable to the sociopolitical conditions of the times. Film’s ability to cut across national and historical boundaries is what continues to make movies magical and, at their best, humanly and politically relevant.
Whereas the film began with a camera held by Janis, in the midst of a fashion shoot with Arturo as subject, Almodóvar chooses to have Arturo close the film by pressing on a camera shutter to document the excavation—this time, with the camera as witness to history. A group of women walks toward the open grave, conducting a procession, holding the photographic portraits of their missing ancestors. Though it’s through DNA that bodies have been identified, it is through their photographs that they have been remembered and their existence validated. Armed with the power of their determination and resilience, this small infantry of women—of parallel mothers—march toward the conclusion of a struggle that has passed from generation to generation.
The closing scenes of the film thus bring new meaning and power to that edict often heard in the director’s earlier work: “And your father, may he rest in peace.” This time, there’s no comedic tone. These patriarchs are not those who were derided but ones that must be recovered. It is fitting, then, that Arturo—an exemplar of a different kind of heterosexual masculinity—concludes the excavation. But it’s equally apt that a close-up of Cecilia (Luna Auria Contreras), the baby whose parentage has been in question, leads the audience to the film’s final image as she gazes, inquisitively, into the now open grave. For Almodóvar, hers is the gaze of the future. Cecilia is destined to remember that moment and the barbarity that those mass graves signify for Spanish society.
As spectators, the audience, too, is left to carry the memory of that legacy into their particular futures. For that reason, perhaps, the film ends with a bird’s-eye view of members of ARMH who have excavated the grave and who, along with some relatives, all lie down in it, in the very positions in which the bodies were found. Almodóvar’s moving tribute from the living to the dead lingers as an example of how cinema, which embalms reality (to cite André Bazin), also projects this reality to meet other gazes in futures and spaces that cannot yet be known.