As his new film hits UK cinemas, the esteemed director talks post-Franco Spain, the freedom of the 80s, and the gay cowboy film he’s shooting this year
In Pedro Almodóvar’s 2009 thriller Broken Embraces, a poster hangs in the background for Parallel Mothers. In the framed image, two dice lay in a bird’s nest, accompanying, in capital letters, two words: “MADRES PARALELAS”. Almodóvar, 72, the Spanish auteur behind Talk to Her, Volver and Pain and Glory, started writing Parallel Mothers in the 90s. During the 1999 press tour for All About My Mother, he asked Penélope Cruz to play the younger of two protagonists, Ana.
During the pandemic, Almodóvar rewrote Parallel Mothers and shot it in early 2021 as his 22nd feature. Cruz, as initially imagined, is a co-lead, except now as Janis, one of two women who give birth at the same hospital. Janis, nearly 40, takes pleasure from her accidental pregnancy, but Ana (Milena Smit), half her age, remains shellshocked. Forming an immediate, Almodóvarian bond, both women agree to keep in touch, not least because Janis’s ex later remarks that Janis’s baby couldn’t possibly be hers. The child looks too different, he observes. Cue the Hitchcockian strings.
Parallel Mothers, one of Almodóvar’s best, more than delivers on what you’d expect from such a reliable totem of international cinema: the complex, thorny depiction of womanhood; the rich colours and richer clothes; the melodramatic, I-can’t-believe-he’s-going-there twists that pull a luxurious rug from beneath your toes. Yet Parallel Mothers is also fiercely political, drawing sharp, surprising comparisons between its soapy premise and Spain’s national trauma.
Born during General Franco’s regime, Almodóvar once claimed it would be subversive for his films to ignore the dictator’s existence. Almodóvar kept to his word – until Parallel Mothers, that is. As her great-grandfather died during the Spanish Civil War, Janis attempts to locate his literal skeleton, raising questions of what happens when a nation opts for amnesia. The marketing campaign emphasises one storyline – a poster with a lactating nipple was temporarily banned from Instagram – but the haunting finale suggests that Almodóvar desperately wishes to instigate a more political post-screening conversation.
On the week of Parallel Mothers hitting cinemas, I spoke to Almodóvar in a Knightsbridge hotel – mostly in English, sometimes via an interpreter – about finally addressing the Franco era, the freedom of the 80s, and the gay cowboy film he’s shooting this year.
At the end of 1997 film, Live Flesh, Victor tells his child that Spanish people no longer have fear. That was an indirect comment on life after Franco’s regime. With the timing of Parallel Mothers, do you think the fear has returned?
Pedro Almodóvar: It’s true, the more political movie I did before Parallel Mothers was Live Flesh. Victor was born on a dark, lonely night on a bus in 1970, and his new baby, 20 years later, is born in a town where the streets are crowded and happy. For the first time, I wanted to be very explicit in saying what it meant for us to live in a democracy, because everything changed – above all, for young people.
But I started thinking about Parallel Mothers more in this century, when I wanted to talk about the mass graves [that had been discovered of Franco’s victims]. It’s a debt that Spanish society has with the victims and families. I wanted to give visibility to a problem that many people forgot about. The young generation don’t know what I’m talking about, because they don’t have memories of the Franco period.
How have those younger viewers reacted? Are you like Janis, when she complains that Ana should educate herself in Spanish history?
Pedro Almodóvar: Spain is a divided country, always. Not only during the civil war, but also now. We’re very divided between the right – the far-right – and the left. I tried to tell young people that we should have memories of our past, and to not repeat the same mistakes. But I don’t know how they’ve reacted, really.
The half of the country that is conservative, they don’t like the movie. They don’t like that someone like me is remembering that period, that the mass graves are still there, that the families are demanding desperately to identify the victims. They think that period is finished. But I think it’s not finished – not until we find a solution.
“Spain is a divided country, always. Not only during the civil war, but also now. We’re very divided between the right – the far-right – and the left” – Pedro Almodóvar
You produced a documentary on the post-Franco period, The Silence of Others, in 2018. What can a fiction feature, with a movie star like Penélope Cruz, convey that a documentary can’t?
Pedro Almodóvar: That documentary had a lot of success on the circuit. What it showed, most importantly, was that there are cases where it’s impossible to recover and identify the remains [of these mass graves], mostly because something has been built on top of the graves. A fiction feature with Penélope gives much more visibility to this problem, because a documentary has less distribution. Now, fortunately, the socialist government of Pedro Sánchez is trying to fix it.
This new government has been addressing problems that we’ve inherited from the Franco era, like Franco’s grave, which they’ve taken away so people are no longer able to go and pay tribute to a dictator. It’s incredible. It’s like in Germany if they had a big monument to celebrate the life of Hitler. The socialist party did this two years ago. It was still there two years ago.
You had the idea for Parallel Mothers around the same time as Live Flesh, which suggests you were ready to do a number of films addressing Franco around that late 90s period. In retrospect, do you wish you had done?
Pedro Almodóvar: I can’t impose themes on myself when I’m writing. A script didn’t appear where I could address the legacy of the Franco era. I was raised in La Mancha and then I went to Madrid. I was conscious of what it means to live in a dictatorship because I was young, and you could feel it in the atmosphere. After 10 years, Franco died, and the country changed into a new democracy. We could enjoy all kinds of freedom.
I’m talking about the late 70s and 80s. I was very young. Perhaps it was a moment to talk about the Franco period, but it was too recent. Also, I was much more inspired by the new democracy, the freedom, the nightlife, the young behaviour we had in Madrid. Because, curiously, that didn’t appear in movies in Spain. I was the only one. The young people, we didn’t have money. I started making movies by creating a kind of crowdfunding. I was more concerned with living my life in complete freedom. And also to witness the new Madrid that was in front of me.
With the passing of time, as I was getting more mature, I looked at our past. In the 80s, it didn’t mean that I lost my memory. I of course had the memory of Francoism. But I tried not to mention it, because it was a personal revenge to not talk about it in my movies. I tried to say that Franco didn’t exist, because that was a time when I was living my life, and also writing my scripts, like we’d never lived under a dictatorship.
Audiences are less shocked by LGBTQ storylines nowadays. Is political history the new taboo that interests you?
Pedro Almodóvar: Not exactly. Spain has a weird and immature relationship with its past. The different sexual orientations of my characters scandalised a lot of people back then. Showing trans or gay characters was much more scandalous than it is now, and it’s great that there’s so much representation on TV and on the big screen. But back then, it was a political way of showing these characters’ lives as well. They were never presented as a problem, but as a part of life.
The problem now is that Spain is a divided country. Now we have, for the first time, in the last four years, a party of the far-right – they contaminate the parliament in Spain, because they didn’t condemn the Franco regime. Actually, they confess they’re Franco followers. They scream a lot. They lie a lot. They are revisiting our story, trying to tell our story that we lived, in a different way. They’re like pupils of Trump. They use the same technique of fake news, and being homophobic, anti-feminist, racist, and anti-abortion. I would like that the people that represent us in parliament could debate about real problems like professionals.
You reveal that Ana was gang-raped. Was that in your earlier drafts, or did you update it to reflect the 2016 La Manada gang rape case?
Pedro Almodóvar: It was in early drafts because I’d read about a similar case, but not that one specifically. I wrote it as I had perceived it from the real-life case, a situation full of confusion from her point of view. She went home with a boy that she liked. They made love, but then his friends filmed them and used that footage to coerce sex out of her, which is obviously rape. And they kept doing it again and again, blackmailing her all the time.
So it’s certainly different, but it talks about the same problems. It’s good you know about La Manada, because it’s something that was very specific about Pamplona. But there were several cases that came before it and after it. Unfortunately, what was really specific to it as well, which is in the film, is that they’re all minors.
Are you still shooting your western, Strange Way of Life?
Pedro Almodóvar: (laughs) How do you know about what I’m doing? Yes, this is what I’m preparing now. There are two protagonists. I talked to the actors already. I don’t know if I can say the names. It will be in English. We don’t have a contract, but they want to do it. We will be shooting it in June. It’s a gay love story between two cowboys, when they are old.
“Young people didn’t have money [in the 80s, so] I started making movies by creating a kind of crowdfunding. I was more concerned with living my life in complete freedom”
That’s interesting, because weren’t you offered Brokeback Mountain in the 90s?
Pedro Almodóvar: Yeah. It’s not exactly that. But Brokeback Mountain was a love story between two guys, too. In this case, they’re much older. They had an affair when they were very young, when they were in the Mexican Revolution, like sharpshooters. After they separated, they had very different lives. One is on a ranch with a lot of cows and all that. They meet each other when they’re 55. There will be action, but it’s not a typical western.
You said you wanted to do a short with Tilda Swinton to prepare for shooting in English. After The Human Voice, do you feel more confident for your western, and also A Manual for Cleaning Women with Cate Blanchett?
Pedro Almodóvar: Still, now, I have a fear to shoot in English, but I admit that The Human Voice was an exercise for me to discover if I could really shoot something in English. And I could. It was a wonderful experience, because to work with Tilda was a revelation. We were all friends. It was very easy to understand her. It was very easy for her to be clear in my universe.
Also, this short, which will also be in English, is an exercise for the film I hope I will make. I’ve already written the script in Spanish, and it was translated into English, and I’ve talked a lot with Cate Blanchett, because she’s the protagonist. That will be in one year.
On the Wikipedia page for Parallel Mothers, it says you tried to cast Anya Taylor-Joy. I assume that came from a mistranslated report, but I wanted to check.
Pedro Almodóvar: No, it’s not true. The only thing I’ve said is that I like her a lot, and she was brought up in Argentina and so speaks perfect Spanish. When I was writing it, I always thought of Penélope, and Milena came to my audition and was gorgeous. Milena is a revelation in the movie.
But Anya Taylor, perhaps in the future.
I’ll correct the Wikipedia page for you.
Pedro Almodóvar: Physically, she can be very beautiful, and she can be very weird, too. She has a face that has a thousand different faces in it. It’s the type of face that I’d like to work with a lot. And she speaks Spanish.
Parallel Mothers is out in UK cinemas now