Maverick Life

FILM REVIEW

Kinship makes us human: Pedro Almodóvar’s ‘Parallel Mothers’

(Image: Sony Pictures Classics)

Parallel Mothers explores themes such as extramarital affairs, queerness, the desire for motherhood (or lack thereof), broken families and romance in the aftermath of disaster. And Spanish film director Pedro Almodóvar does not take lightly the lesson that kinship binds humans in ever so imperfect networks of care.

Parallel Mothers follows Janis (Penélope Cruz), a freelance photographer in her late thirties. Through her work, Janis meets forensic anthropologist Arturo (Israel Elejalde), who works for a national historical foundation. She asks for his help, through the foundation, to acquire the rights to exhume an unmarked mass grave in her hometown, where her great-grandfather was buried, assassinated by the fascist falangistas at the beginning of the Spanish Civil War. Their relationship eventually turns romantic despite Arturo being married, and Janis becomes pregnant. Some time later, we see her at the maternity ward, sharing a room and bonding over the experience of childbirth with the teenager Ana (Milena Smit), pregnant after a gang rape. 

The complicated relationships between Arturo, Janis, Ana and their children is the nexus from which the story unfolds.

We can immediately feel that a sense of “uprootedness” plagues Janis. She reaches simultaneously to her past, through her great-grandfather, whom she only knows through the few times her grandmother could bear the pain of thinking and talking about him, and to her future through her newborn child, whom she loves with all her heart but becomes the locus of tremendous anxiety between her and Ana after a maternity ward mishap. 

What compels her to reach out at once to the future and past is a desire to make sense of the tribulations that she is a product of, to understand her place in the world, and give meaning to her own life.

In that way, Parallel Mothers is a movie that both depicts and transcends the complexity of romantic relationships, the link between womanhood and childbirth, and life in the aftermath of a tragedy that one was never a part of, among the ghosts of a violent past. 

At its most fundamental, however, it is a movie about what it means to be human, and Almodóvar’s answer to this question is but one: to be human is to make kin. 

The character of Arturo, the forensic anthropologist, is a tacit but constant reminder of that assertion. Anthropology, broadly defined, is the scientific study of humanity, how we become human, and what being human actually means. Although Arturo is a forensic anthropologist, a subfield that focuses on the identification of deceased individuals and human remains through the application of archaeological methods, we may also learn about the message of Parallel Mothers through an incursion into another subfield of anthropology – sociocultural anthropology. 

As anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss put it succinctly, the very essence of the anthropological endeavour was embodied in Rimbaud’s formula of poetic displacement: “I is another.”

As its denomination suggests, sociocultural anthropology is particularly concerned with the concept of culture. Despite appearing to be a simple enough idea on the surface, culture is an elusive concept, one that is at once surprisingly difficult to define analytically while also being indispensable to understand human life. 

Far from being a mere set of customs, traditions and beliefs, culture might just be one of the fundamental building blocks through which people create pathways to access reality itself. These building blocks are not constructed by a single individual, but in an intersubjective fashion across societies through complex systems. That is to say, despite our “biological basis”, we cannot think about how the lives of humans unfold without thinking about culture, and we cannot conceive of culture without thinking about how humans are constantly co-constructing it through a topology of mutual intrusions into each other. 

As anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss put it succinctly, the very essence of the anthropological endeavour was embodied in Rimbaud’s formula of poetic displacement: “I is another.” 

Among these complex systems that create culture, perhaps none has fascinated anthropologists longer than kinship. 

At the core of studies of kinship is a potent proposition about human relations: it is through kinship that we may establish networks of nurturing. We are compelled by the social forces of culture to care for those with whom we make kin. For better or for worse. 

Milena Smit and Penélope Cruz in Parallel Mothers. (Image: Sony Pictures Classics)

As a movie, Parallel Mothers displays that lesson brilliantly and in its complete intricacy. By exploring themes like extramarital affairs, queerness, the desire for motherhood (or lack thereof), broken families, and romance in the aftermath of disaster, Almodóvar does not take lightly the lesson that kinship binds us humans in ever so imperfect networks of care. Doing justice to the human condition, he not only hints at all the different ways these networks come to be established (kin is also those who we want to be with), but also the fact that, at times, being part of those networks is not a choice, and belonging to them can be an alienating experience that leaves us with the opposite feeling of being cared for. 

Happiness, sadness, euphoria, apathy and everything in between; that is what being human is after all. 

Tactfully unfolding this message is a time-consuming effort, and the movie expects a patient viewer. It may seem aimless at times, leaving the audience to wonder what it is actually about. The wait, however, does pay off – in its last 20 minutes the powerful message of the movie, explicitly political, comes into full view to breathtaking effect. 

Penélope Cruz attends the 2021 Museum of Modern Art Film Benefit on 14 December 2021 in New York City. (Photo: Michael Loccisano / Getty Images)

The shift comes when Arturo’s team is ready to start the excavation of the mass grave. We learn that not only Janis but many of the current inhabitants of the town know next to nothing about their assassinated relatives who lie there. Some of them are nearing the final moments of their lives, riddled by sickness, and long for only one thing: to give their family members a dignified burial, to make kin with the dead by claiming the right to mourn them, and to fully become themselves as humans. The very last scene juxtaposes the unearthed skeletons of the dead with the excavation team lying in the same position to remind us, once again, that “I is another”. 

There is no silent history. No matter how much they burn it, no matter how much they break it, no matter how much they lie to it, human history refuses to shut up.

A quote by literary giant Eduardo Galeano closes the movie: “There is no silent history. No matter how much they burn it, no matter how much they break it, no matter how much they lie to it, human history refuses to shut up.” What Almodóvar does so skilfully in Parallel Mothers is to demonstrate that history is ultimately made of (not just by) people-in-relations. What undergirds the search for historical truth is not just a desire to set the record straight but also the quest to become human in the aftermath of violent uprootings. This is of course poignant for a Europe that seeks to settle the score with its fascist past, but there is a particular universality in that anti-authoritarian message. More specifically by invoking Galeano – a prominent figure of the Latin American anti-imperialist left – Almodóvar’s message is quite literally in kinship with the task of addressing the authoritarian legacy of Latin American countries that suffered through CIA-backed military coups during the Cold War through Operation Condor. 

Parallel Mothers is an aesthetically masterful letter of acknowledgment to those who had their humanity denied to them by those in power, literally through torture and murder, and culturally by denying them a sense of belonging in kinship. 

Even if the networks of care engendered by kinship can be incredibly problematic, as the movie demonstrates, inhabiting such networks is part and parcel of being human. It is the right of humans. Severing these links is their choice and nobody else’s. DM/ ML

Parallel Mothers by Pedro Almodóvar is screening at The Labia Theatre in Cape Town from 14 to 20 January 2022.

Thiago Braga is a Brazilian anthropologist at UC Davis, in California. His interests lie at the intersection of social theory, philosophy and art.

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