“Parallel Mothers” Is a Masterpiece of Mommy Issues and Generational Trauma

For Pedro Almodóvar, motherhood has always been a metaphor.

If George Cukor held the title of The Woman’s Director of the first half the 20th century, Almodóvar took over for the second. Women have directed movies since the beginning of cinema, but until recently women directors weren’t as commonly discussed as “women’s directors” — men, usually gay, who were known for their work centering female characters. Movies like All About My Mother, with its dedication to a trio of iconic actresses, multiple categories of women, and his own mother, make Almodóvar an obvious recipient of this label.

Despite his reputation, Almodóvar has long been one of the more controversial figures with the women in my life. My mom still brings up the rape scene in Talk to Her as evidence of the gross things I made her watch as a kid. My ex-girlfriend despised Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown for its exaggerated portrait of femininity. And I’ve often had friends bristle at the cavalier ways he treats sexual violence and domestic abuse in movies such as Pepi Luci Bom.

I understand if his work is triggering in ways that disinterest you, but personally it’s the contradictions of Almodóvar’s films that make him one of my favorite artists. Within every female character Almodóvar has ever written is his own complicated relationship to femininity as a gay man. I love his work for the same reason I love so many drag performers. Give me endless art made by sissies who love and hate their mothers — who love and hate themselves.

Womanhood has been a front for so many facets of Almodóvar’s own life. But in his latest masterpiece, Parallel Mothers, womanhood is a front for even more.

True to its title, there are two intersecting stories in Parallel Mothers. Janis (Penélope Cruz once again giving birth, playing queer, and doing career best work for Almodóvar) is a photographer whose great-grandfather was killed by Franco’s regime. His remains are in an unmarked grave and she asks a forensic anthropologist named Arturo (Israel Elejalde) if he can help excavate this site. He agrees but in the meantime they begin having an affair, Janis gets pregnant, and Arturo goes back to his wife. At the hospital, Janis meets our second story, Ana (Milena Smit), a teenager giving birth at the same time as Janis. The years pass and the plot turns with reliably Almodóvarian melodrama. Spoiler: Ana cuts off her hair, dyes it blonde, and becomes super gay.

It’s not that Janis and Ana don’t feel real — Almodóvar is too good of a writer and works with too good of actresses for this to be the case — it’s just that reality is not his primary goal. Within his melodrama and metaphors, he is reaching for something deeper. This is a movie about the importance of living in the past — not out of nostalgia, but out of accountability. It’s Almodóvar’s complicated reverence for his mother, unabashed reverence for lesbians, and reluctant reverence for his own femininity, that result in a story where queer women are the only ones capable of interrupting cycles of generational trauma.

Almodóvar wants us to reflect on the narratives we’ve been given. He wants us to reflect on a world where being apolitical is valued, where the sins of a nation are oft-ignored, and where the definitions of family and community suffocate. Maybe queerness is an answer. Maybe femininity is an answer. Maybe it’s up to us to change the patterns that hurt us most.

I spent the first few months of 2021 binge watching Almodóvar movies. I was working on a new script and needed a reminder of what it means to make queer cinema that combines political awareness with political unease. Almodóvar’s filmography is filled with discomfort, humor and pathos that challenge the status quo and the challengers of the status quo. His films are graphically sexual, unapologetically gay, and consistently surprising. He is a formal master with total control over color and framing and sound — and his style allows him the freedom to be messy in just about every other way.

Pedro Almodóvar’s work is not simple. His work is not perfect. His work is, at times, upsetting. It’s also joyous and colorful and filled with love. His movies are everything I want from queer cinema. Everything I want from art. Parallel Mothers is one of his best.


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Drew Burnett Gregory

Drew is an LA-based writer, filmmaker, and theatremaker. Her writing can be found at Bright Wall/Dark Room, Cosmopolitan UK, Thrillist, I Heart Female Directors, and, of course, Autostraddle. She is currently working on a million film and TV projects mostly about trans lesbians. Find her on Twitter and Instagram @draw_gregory.

Drew Burnett has written 311 articles for us.

4 Comments

  1. Please don’t view this as a criticism, but I find it frustrating to see references to (e.g.) “queer women” because I honestly don’t know what that means. I often think “could you please be more specific?” I’ve tried researching “queer cinema” and found evidence that it perhaps means a cutting edge, more confrontational form of film-making that isn’t simply a story with one or more gay characters, but would that apply to the “queer” characters in a film like this? And I increasingly see references to being (e.g.) “lesbian, not queer”, so clearly it’s not unusual to be gay but not identify as queer. I therefore wonder if it has become an umbrella term that doesn’t really work for a lot of people? Or to look at it another way, how difficult would it have been to write your review if there was a temporary ban on saying “queer”!

  2. this was my first almodovar film — finally! — and i guess i would categorize is as a mom film as much as if not more than a queer film?

    i guess my favorite films never fit neatly in their genres

    i loved this and was completely captivited by the way the older mom (like me) became a sort of extra or more loving and present mom to the teen mom —

    or so i perceived the familyish vibe, such that the sexual layer of their bond felt out of left field to me and maybe even a bit exploitative? like maybe the older mom/friend should have helped the semi-abused much younger mom/friend learn to develop boundaries as well as to cook and run a house?

    i appreciate ms gregory’s review and especially love these wisely hopeful words:

    “Maybe it’s up to us to change the patterns that hurt us most.”

  3. ‘ Madame Bovary c’est moi’. We all know that quote, so let’s start saying that Cukor , Almodovar or any artist are actually talking about themselves and not about this vague notion of ‘women’.

    I also found the lesbian relationship not necessary really. personally I found it didn’t add anything. I had rather liked to see the older mother empowering the young traumatised mother. Thank for the review 😊

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