Film Review: “Parallel Mothers”

Ash Wednesday arrives next week, and Lenten reflections will start the following weekend.  Beforehand, the Spanish director Pedro Almodovar has recently released a thought-provoking film that deserves notice.

“Parallel Mothers,” set in Madrid, stars Penelope Cruz as Janis, an unmarried photographer who becomes pregnant accidentally, and crosses paths with a 17-year old single mom in the hospital maternity ward. That story becomes a bit melodramatic, more interesting for its intersections with the larger story: uncovering the horrors of the Franco regime.

Janis’ great-grandfather was brutally murdered and buried with his friends in a mass grave; she asks the forensic anthropologist Arturo to help the families of her village put some closure to their grief and find remains to bury with loved ones. When this finally happens and the skeletons are exposed, it’s a moving scene.

The families, a small army of women, some holding pictures, some crying, arrive at the grave site like a community of remembrance. Arturo says, “we will withdraw now. It’s your moment.” As he and his crew step back, these ordinary villagers stand like a monument to the Bible verse “love is stronger than death” (Song of Solomon 8:6). Another ending quotation pays tribute to the fact that no one, despite their best efforts to suppress, can erase history.

How do the two stories relate? Perhaps the first story of the two mothers is a holon, defined as being whole within itself, yet also part of something larger. The symbolic links to the communal story are the repetition of mouth-swabbing DNA tests to establish identities, and the use of cameras, not only Janis’ profession, but a record of the fascist atrocities.

As Leah Greenblatt’s review says in Entertainment Weekly, the film is “chaotically and improbably plotted,” but nonetheless a “freighted tale of memory and identity.” A.O. Scott’s review in the New York Times adds, “Injustice festers across generations. The failure to confront it casts a persistent, ugly shadow.” In our time and place as well as in mid-20th century Spain.

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