PRINT January 2022


Missing Men

Pedro Almodóvar, Madres paralelas (Parallel Mothers), 2021, 4K video, color, sound, 123 minutes. Ana (Milena Smit) and Janis (Penélope Cruz). Production still. Photo: Iglesias Más.

A SOCIAL ANTHROPOLOGY of Almodóvar country would duly remark the profusion of single mothers and sisterly subcultures. The most obvious explanation for this phenomenon is the no less abundant population of bad men: fathers who rape, batter, walk out, or otherwise abdicate the paternal function, as psychoanalyst D. W. Winnicott called it, of protecting maternity. In Parallel Mothers, Almodóvar’s latest film, Ana (Milena Smit), for instance, is pregnant with a child conceived in a sexual assault involving multiple men. Whoever sired her little Anita will not be coming forward, even if intimidated Ana or her scandalized parents had any wish for that outcome. Meanwhile, Ana’s parallel mother, Janis (Penélope Cruz), has long ago internalized the missing man as the founding principle of her independence. A forty-year-old photographer, Janis wants nothing from her daughter’s father, Arturo (Israel Elejalde)—not even the little that he, as an already married man, might be willing to give. As a third-generation single mother who has never seen her own father, Janis takes pride in not relying on a male partner, instead finding support from an all-female care team that finally includes, beyond a housekeeper and an au pair, Ana herself. When these two mothers of daughters become lovers, the male deficit in Almodóvar’s cinema seems to reach an absolute limit.

Theirs could be a chosen family, liberated from the normative prescriptions of the nuclear family, but Parallel Mothers won’t quite have it that way. It is, after all, the obsessive pursuit of biological family that gives Parallel Mothers its narrative structure. In the true telenovela tradition, Janis begins to doubt that the baby she took home, Cecilia, is hers when Arturo insists that the infant is too “dark” to be his. Janis’s friend Elena (Rossy de Palma) concedes that the baby is getting “more ethnic” by the day. Increasingly unsure of Cecilia’s parentage, Janis swabs her own cheek and the cheek of the baby, then Ana’s cheek, and a DNA test reveals that Cecilia is in fact Ana’s child. The children had been swapped in the maternity ward. To complicate matters further, the white child that Ana took home from the hospital has died from sids, and as the parallelism between the two unwed mothers ruptures, they fight over the child who is still alive.

Ana furiously packs bag and baby and goes home to her own mother. Janis sedates her devastation with sleeping pills and Arturo’s attentions. These are coups de foudre that would in any proper serial beg “to be continued.” Instead, Almodóvar drops these story lines for another that is very different in mode and scale. All along, Janis’s embrace of single motherhood has coexisted with an equally passionate political nostalgia for the men of her great-grandfather’s generation who were murdered during the White Terror and dumped unceremoniously into mass graves. She has been campaigning to get one such grave in her home village excavated so that some of these men may be identified and properly mourned. With the help of Arturo, a forensic anthropologist, Janis returns to the village and meticulously documents the genetic material of the women who lost their families’ men to fascism, in order to match it with the DNA of the bones to be exhumed from the town’s grave. Mouths are again swabbed. Like scrubbing countless pots, sampling DNA assumes both the tedium and the sublimity of women’s work in this film. (Mrs. Dalloway said she would swab the cheeks herself!)

Pedro Almodóvar’s Madres paralelas (Parallel Mothers), 2021, 4K video, color, sound, 123 minutes.

As the film turns to the historical-memory plot centered on the long-missing men, it suggests a parallel between Janis’s coming to terms with Cecilia’s parentage and Spain’s overdue recognition of its assassinated Republicans. Both stories—of family and of nation—depend on the authority of DNA evidence and are motored by a biological imperative that, taken to its limit, would encourage a white-supremacist fantasy of Spanish nationalism and familial belonging. To avert that prospect is precisely why such emphasis is placed on the mestiza toddler in the film’s final scene. Arturo’s team of archaeologists, having labeled the skeletal remains with numbers, leaves the daughters, granddaughters, and great-granddaughters of the lost Republicans to peer into the grave’s pit. The camera pans across their melancholic faces, lingering on that of Cecilia, as if to affirm that this is as much her national-familial legacy as it is Janis’s or Ana’s.

The political edification doesn’t stop here. The heroes whose bones we glimpse are a far cry from Almodóvar’s usual male monsters. Not only are they political martyrs, they are also family men to the core: One of them, we are told, was carried to his death clutching his daughter’s rattle. If the living men in the film are variously disappointing, the long-dead ones are the perfect stuff of epic romance. Good men and good mothers: united at last! Almodóvar has abandoned his women on the verge of their nervous breakdowns (or emotional breakthroughs) for a pious History Channel reenactment.

Or sort of. As a citizen of the Spanish state, presently threatened by a wave of neofascism, Almodóvar has a large stake in the issue of historical memory, but he is too incorrigible an artist for the standard-issue allegory he has produced here not to leave a lot of loose ends. At such a canned political moment, one can’t help finding a certain perverse appeal in the words of Ana’s mother, Teresa (Aitana Sánchez-Gijón), absent from this concluding sequence: “I’m apolitical,” she’d declared to Janis earlier. She is missed at the film’s end not because she is apolitical but because she offers us a different way of thinking about the political in cultural production, and one that has been closer to Almodóvar’s previous practice: not a politics of chosen positions but a politics grounded in the embodiment of those positions. (The true feminist of Women on the Verge is not the nominally feminist lawyer Paulina, but Pepa, whose very being incarnates an intractable demand for equality, even when she is not literally demanding it.) If Teresa is not an idealizable mother, she is a great actress, which is, after all, a no less privileged female office in Almodóvar’s cinema than that of mother. In playing classic roles of female victimhood, Teresa is reckoning with her own life under patriarchy, including her victimization as a mother—one who has borne a child only because that’s what church and state, propping up her semifascist husband, have mandated. And in her very “selfishness” (the kind that issues from intolerable self-abnegation), Teresa may also have raised the consciousness of her daughter, without any intention of doing so. Says Ana, “It’s the only lesson I’ve learned from my mother: Live my life and be free.”

But at the grave site, it is unclear that Ana’s own daughter, Cecilia, will be able to live by these words. She is, of course, brought in to witness this somber spectacle as a child of the future, representative of a world that will move past fascist barbarity, as she herself has been moved past maternal contestation. But as she looks into the excavated grave, her face and overall demeanor undercut this supposition. She appears variously tearful, bored, and perplexed at the enormity of what she is being asked to stand for: She is a child facing her overwhelming destiny as a child-symbol. And though her mother is present (both of them), her father is not—he dwells somewhere in Almodóvar’s limbo of bad men, where no Janis is interested in tracking him down with a swab. Already, Cecilia is one of those Almodóvar children who have a mother but no father, who will grow up knowing all about their mother except the reason she had for keeping their father unknown.

Sampling DNA assumes both the tedium and the sublimity of women’s work in this film. (Mrs. Dalloway said she would swab the cheeks herself!)

Pedro Almodóvar’s Madres paralelas (Parallel Mothers), 2021, 4K video, color, sound, 123 minutes.

And what, finally, of the missing men, whose absence in the film is multiply determined by separatist-tending feminism, by toxic masculinity, and by fascist assassination? To understand the film’s last shot—perhaps the loosest end of all—we need to add one more determination. Janis’s dogmatic embrace of single motherhood conveniently parallels what has long been Almodóvar’s own creative preference for female protagonists. It is impossible not to recognize, here as in Volver, the directorial fantasy that subtends these all-women worlds. Almodóvar’s dream of “women without men” is fundamentally a dream of women without any man but him. Behind the camera, he gives his mothers the attention and nurturing of which no man or boy in front of that camera seems remotely capable. In his relation to the actress-as-mother, Almodóvar has always striven to be the best imaginable son, which is to say, to become the mother’s own mother. Mothers encourage us to walk; Almodóvar mightily returns the favor by directing his actress/mothers to giant steps. (Small wonder that Cruz gives her best performance to date.)

If Parallel Mothers takes the banishment of men from Almodóvar country to a new extreme, it also cultivates a complexly circumspect desire to return men from their exile. At the beginning of the film, Janis means to use a skull as a prop in photographing Arturo, but she eventually decides that the Hamlet reference would be too obvious. Obvious or not, it’s useful in a film that ends with everyone looking into a grave full of dead men’s bones. As if the film were enacting Claudius’s decree that “this grave shall have a living monument,” the penultimate shot, of the skeletons, is replaced with a shot of the archaeological team lying in their places, Arturo front and center.

In a scene replete with visual clichés, this image is uniquely unexpected; as it floats uncertainly among interpretative possibilities, it’s hard to know just what it is we are meant to visualize. Certainly, it does not feel like an image of murdered corpses thrown in a heap. These men, dressed in contemporary clothes, not cosplaying midcentury Republicans, seem at peace—as much with one another and with the women in their midst as with anything else. With this shot, the film invites us to contemplate the live male flesh of which it has given us precious little—and it presents that flesh not under the stock virilizing category of action (the digging) but under the much stranger aegis of dormancy, these men lying vitally together in the bed of exhumation. Into what the dead awaken is undoubtedly a religious question for some onlookers; for others, it must be a political one, with the rise of the democratic masses contingent on the recovery of the mass graves. But it is hard to avoid feeling that, at the end of this film whose protagonist and director are so conflicted about masculinity as a site of danger and of pleasure, it might also be (though uttered in a whisper) an erotic question.

Anna Shechtman and D. A. Miller are film scholars and friends who have been watching movies—in parallel, in New York and San Francisco—in a cine-club of two since the start of the pandemic. This collaboration honors their first opportunity to watch a film together in a theater.