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.