When the Spanish parliament enacted an amnesty law in 1977, two years after the death of General Francisco Franco, it seemed to fulfill a demand of prodemocracy groups. After all, one of the main slogans roared out by demonstrators in marches throughout Spain was ¡Amnistía y Libertad! Amnesty was associated with freedom; it meant that political prisoners could be released and many enemies of the old regime could return from exile.
It was an exciting time in Spain. I remember being in a taxi in Barcelona one Saturday night in April 1977 when the driver let out a huge, joyous cry and started to honk the horn in excitement. It felt as though his team had won the soccer championship. Soon I discovered, however, that he was excited because news had just come in that the Communist Party had been legalized in Spain and its candidates would run in the forthcoming elections.
The previous year, the government had grudgingly allowed the Catalans to celebrate their national day. In 1977 an estimated million people marched for Catalan autonomy, some even demanding Catalan independence. At this time, the Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party, led by Felipe González, became the main opposition party and would take power in 1982.
It made sense that no one wanted to talk about the past. The present was too filled with possibility. And politics somehow allowed people to ignore politics. I remember a wild party in Barcelona on the night that Franco died. I remember that no one even mentioned the dead dictator. There was too much else to talk about. Even referring to him and his cohorts in passing would have breached an important code.
It seemed that Spaniards in their late teens and early twenties had shrugged Franco off. They had worked out a way of growing up under a repressive regime without paying much attention to it. Their parents, a generation before, had also worked out a way of surviving. One of the main tools was silence. Again and again, as though it were a kind of alibi, people insisted that the civil war was never mentioned in their houses, even if their parents or grandparents had been involved.
The amnesty law of 1977, approved with an overwhelming majority of both left- and right-wing parties, also covered crimes committed by the Franco government. At the time, no one saw the dangers of this. There was, in any case, no appetite for endless show trials of elderly generals. This would have soaked up energy that was needed to create a civil society in Spain.
A generation was emerging that really had no interest in what happened before they came of age. Once, when a young Spanish poet discovered that I had written a sad novel about the aftermath of the civil war, he shook his head in pity and said, “No one has any interest in the sad aftermath of the civil war.”
Soon after the arrival of democracy, Pedro Almodóvar became the high priest of brash drama, high color, and great excitement in the new Spain. His characters invented themselves and the world around them. They took the sexual revolution as seriously as others did the political changes. In Pepi, Luci, Bom and Other Girls Like Mom (1980), his first feature film, one character notes the “wave of eroticism sweeping the country.” As if making a declaration of independence, there is a competition called General Erections. When Pepi (Carmen Maura) is raped by a policeman, the revenge she and her friends plan is to discover the strange, secret sexual longings of the policeman’s wife, and thus to undermine his marriage. Rather than going to the authorities or protesting in the streets, they make it sharply personal. When the film was first shown, these images of a policeman’s wife and the sort of sexual excitement she really wanted caused much laughter and were deeply subversive.
Motherhood is one of Almodóvar’s great subjects. In What Have I Done to Deserve This? (1984), Gloria (Maura) has to put up with her mother-in-law, as in Matador (1986) Ángel (Antonio Banderas) has to deal with his religious mother. In High Heels (1991) Rebeca (Victoria Abril) is living in the shadow of her mother (Marisa Paredes), a famous singer, having married her mother’s ex-lover. In these films, mothers are not haunting presences or aspects of the past that must be reckoned with, but a sort of nuisance, someone who needs to be pushed out of the way. In later films, however, such as All About My Mother (1999), Almodóvar dramatized motherhood with much greater complexity.
His characters have a habit of brushing aside problems that on their own might seem too obvious. For example, in Law of Desire (1987), in which two characters in a love triangle are gay, they suffer none of the guilt or repression that might be easily imagined. They have other things on their minds, as do characters in his work who are victims. They evade the claims of their victimhood in order to do something more interesting.
In Volver (2006) Almodóvar allows the bygone generation, including a dead mother, to haunt those still alive. Pain and Glory (2019) is elegiac and self-interrogating. One of the characters, a version of the director himself played by Banderas, is solitary, melancholy, uneasy. In both films, Almodóvar, having spent much of his career disrupting the very notion of home, seems ready to deal with the possibility that he and those around him actually have a past, a place they come from that is not just a result of their dreams.
In 2019 Almodóvar was one of the producers of a documentary, The Silence of Others, about the effect of the amnesty law of 1977. Written and directed by Almudena Carracedo and Robert Bahar, it dealt with the silence and secrecy imposed on Spain after the civil war.
All over the country, to this day, are unmarked mass graves of people executed during the civil war by Franco’s forces. In 2007, with the Socialists in power, the Historical Memory Law was enacted; its aim was
to recognize and broaden the rights favoring those who suffered persecution or violence—for political, ideological, or religious reasons—during the Civil War and the Dictatorship, [and to] promote moral reparation and the recovery of personal and family memory.
The Socialists then began to fund the search for mass graves and to support the exhumation and reburial of the dead. But this was discontinued by Mariano Rajoy’s right-wing government, which held power between 2011 and 2018. Last year, it was announced by the Socialist government, which returned to power in 2018, that grants for exhumations would be resumed.
In The Silence of Others, we see an old woman getting a mouth swab so that her DNA can be checked against that of her father, who may be buried in a mass grave. We see the king and two right-wing prime ministers, including Rajoy, denouncing the idea of revisiting the past. We see another old woman, María Martín, point to a road and declare that it is built on top of a mass grave where her mother, executed in the civil war, is buried.
Almodóvar’s latest film, Parallel Mothers, begins with Janis (Penélope Cruz), a trendy photographer living in Madrid, consulting Arturo (Israel Elejalde), a forensic anthropologist, about the possibility of getting private funding for the opening up of the mass grave in which her great-grandfather is buried. Soon, courtesy of Arturo, she is pregnant and sharing a hospital room with a teenage girl, Ana (Milena Smit), who is also about to give birth.
This new film begins as a story about mothers. Ana’s mother (Aitana Sánchez-Gijón) is an actress who is too busy to bother with her. Janis’s mother was a hippie who died of a drug overdose. They are both motherless women venturing uneasily into motherhood. But this is also a film about identity and notions of belonging. When Janis begins to suspect that the child she has taken home from the hospital may not be hers, she swabs her mouth, that of her child, and that of Ana, just as the old woman in search of her father’s remains in The Silence of Others has her mouth swabbed.
Before moving Janis and the film itself into new territory, Almodóvar creates her and the world she inhabits with the sort of flair and zeal we have become used to in his films. Her apartment is like a character, with its ornaments, red furniture, and sense of brazen newness.
Because of the way she dresses and the style of her apartment, because of her friendship with the fashionable Elena (Rossy de Palma) and her line of work, Janis has all the trappings of a classic Almodóvar heroine. Slowly it becomes clear, however, that she has not gained strength from any process of self-invention. She is as fragile as Salvador in Pain and Glory. She never knew her father and has no photographs of him. She has no siblings. Elena, it turns out, is not a friend from the Madrid social world but from their childhood village. There is a moment when Janis, having found out that she is not really the mother of the baby she brought home, appears in shadow, and that seems right. Much of her presence is shadowy.
When Janis realizes that she has the wrong child, her silence, at first, is almost understandable, but then it becomes shameful when we see it from Ana’s point of view. This, in a very subtle and organic way, echoes what happened to the victims of the civil war in the new Spain. It is as though Almodóvar is seeking to show, at the most personal level, how easy it is, how tempting, to conceal the truth.
Parallel Mothers is set in 2016. When Janis asks Arturo for his help finding the grave, he replies that the government has withdrawn all the subsidies for discovering the bodies of the civil war dead. “Prime Minister Rajoy,” he adds, “boasted in an interview that in the state budget there were zero euros for historical memory.” Followers of Almodóvar’s films will notice something new: he has mentioned the name of a prime minister.
It is not, however, as though he has been fully apolitical up to now. Moving sexual strangeness toward the light of normality has been for him a deeply political act. Much of the time, in his own quirky way, Almodóvar has been a moralist opposed to dishonesty and hypocrisy; his characters work toward a recognition of aspects of themselves that were hidden or forbidden.
Despite his fascination with the present moment, in previous films such as Volver and Pain and Glory Almodóvar has dramatized the rituals around death. Volver opens in a cemetery where the local women are cleaning the gravestones. It includes the wake and funeral of an old aunt. In Pain and Glory, there are many scenes between the mother and son that are tender, when all irony has been cast aside. In one of them, the mother (Julieta Serrano) tells her son with some emphasis how she would like to be buried, what she would like to wear on her head, how she would like to have her feet bare and unbound as she goes into her grave.
Janis in Parallel Mothers emerges from shadow most strongly in an argument with Ana when Ana fails to understand why she cares so much about the hidden graves. In her rage, her passionate response, Janis becomes Almodóvar’s version of Antigone. She sees the burial of the dead as a sacred duty.
Of the older generation of her family, all the men are dead; only one woman is still alive, Aunt Brígida (Serrano). As they go back to the village to witness the exhumations, for which they have received private funding, we see Aunt Brígida, who is old and dying, surrounded by her family. There is a wonderful moment when one of her granddaughters says that Brígida, who was four months old when her father—Janis’s great-grandfather—was executed, actually remembers him. Brígida immediately corrects her. She remembers only what her mother told her. She has no interest in mythologizing the past. And like the mother in Pain and Glory, she is clear about how she wishes to be buried. She wants to be interred with her family, and for this she will need her father’s body to be found and exhumed.
Brígida, too, must have her mouth swabbed. In the scene at the mass grave, the workers sift clay to locate small objects such as teeth or buttons, recalling a similar scene from The Silence of Others. In a moment of real dramatic force, the people of the village walk in unison toward the mass grave where the skeletons have been numbered.
The group is led not only by Janis and Ana but also by Elena, who carries a photo of a relative buried there. The image of Rossy de Palma, whom Almodóvar has used in the past for some of his most gorgeously outrageous roles, as a woman from a village seeking justice for the dead gives us some idea of how far he has come.
In Pain and Glory and Parallel Mothers, Almodóvar’s protagonists live alone. They are alert to the power of the past more than they are interested in the present moment. In the earlier film, Banderas plays Salvador as a figure who has become tired and sad, whose appetite for life has waned. Penélope Cruz’s vulnerability and solitude, on the other hand, make her forceful. She has not become sad. At the end of the film, as the graves are opened, we learn that she is pregnant again. What might appear to be Almodóvar’s most political film gently nudges the characters back toward private life, just as some version of harmony or resolution is restored to their broken world.