Pedro Almodóvar: ‘I always come back to the characters of mothers’

The Spanish director on how family and political history come together in his latest film

During the 1980s the Spanish filmmaker Pedro Almodóvar won international renown and hatfuls of festival awards with a series of taboo-busting movies populated by housewives, transwomen, porn stars, punk rockers, nuns and addicts. His comedies were kinky; his melodramas were lurid; his love triangles were pointy. One early film was released in Italy with the tagline: “The scandal continues!”

His work was shaped by La Movida Madrileña, a collective of artists, musicians and playwrights that threw wild shapes in the years following Franco’s dictatorship. But even while the general lived, the budding film director was making silent sex comedies, biblical sodomy-themed tableaux vivants, and racy comic strips. By 1978 he had written and directed his first Super-8 shot feature, F**k, F**k, F**k Me, Tim. By day, for more than a decade, he was an office manager at the state telephone company. By night he created and projected his work at pubs and clubs.

Speaking from his home in Madrid, surrounded by books and awards, the director, screenwriter, producer and sometime actor recalls those early, heady years.

“When I started making films back in 1979, I wanted to make films about the reality of the time,” he says. “And what was most striking about the reality of the situation in Spain, and it was absolutely brand new, was the new democracy. We were living in that explosion of freedoms that we were suddenly able to experience. That, for me, at the time, was the most interesting thing to pick up on in making films. All of those new changes in Spain, the new life that we were living outside in the streets, particularly the nightlife at the time. It was a country that was waking up to new pleasures and new advantages. The political meaning in my early movies was to talk about freedom.”

Some 22 features, two Oscars, and five decades later and Almodóvar has returned to Franco’s Spain by way of Parallel Mothers, a twisty family drama concerning two women who meet and bond in a Madrid maternity ward. It’s a project he first discussed with Penélope Cruz – who took home the Volpi Cup from Venice for her performance in Parallel Mothers – while they were promoting All About My Mother more than two decades ago. Eagle-eyed fans, meanwhile, may have spotted a poster for Parallel Mothers in the writer-director’s Hitchcockian thriller Broken Embraces in 2009.

“I had wanted to deal with the subject of mass graves for a long time because I hadn’t in a film of mine,” says Almodóvar. “But I hadn’t found the right script to be able to do so. I started to write the script for Parallel Mothers. This is a story about two mothers in particular and I find a way to link up two different topics through the main character. Janis, the character played by Penélope Cruz, was brought up by her grandmother. And that gave me the chance to travel back into the past through that story of when her grandmother was 10 years old, having dinner at home when a group of Franco soldiers burst into the house and took her father away.”

Parallel Mothers concerns Janis (Cruz), a 40-year-old professional photographer, who is pregnant by Arturo (Israel Elejalde), the forensic anthropologist in charge of the excavation of a mass grave where Janis’s great-grandfather is buried. Meanwhile, parentage remains a dark question mark for Ana (Milena Smit), Janis’s unlikely teenage friend, who is too young to have any knowledge of the 100,000 citizens who went “missing” during the Spanish Civil War.

“My father fought in the civil war,” says the filmmaker. “He joined the Republican band when he was 19 years old...My parents were girlfriend and boyfriend when they were 14. And they had to wait until they were 30 to marry. In my home, I’d never heard a single word of anything that happened during the war. I mean, of course, I knew there was a civil war, but you know, the way they tell us about it at school, was completely fake. The textbooks that we had at school changed the story of Spain completely. They almost didn’t mention the civil war. And they certainly didn’t mention any military uprising as the start of the civil war. They put all of the blame on this on the Second Republic. And that was also happening in Spanish homes. Fathers and grandfathers never mentioned it because they were very afraid. We needed the new generation born in this century to be the ones that finally could overcome that fear and ask those questions.”

It is not uncommon for Almodóvar to put his scripts away for a few years before shooting. The timing of Parallel Mothers was partially inspired by the rise of the far-right Vox party in Spain.

“Over the last five years, we’ve seen the emergence of an extreme right-wing party that is totally contaminating the political discourse in our country,” he says. “A party that wants to rewrite our history, that wants to rewrite what actually happened in the civil war. They stand for the revisionism of our history. They don’t even criticise the dictatorship. They uphold Franco’s ideology. And that means that people like me, who have a voice, should use that voice to be able to tell people through my films exactly what happened then. So yes, I’m telling people through the film that there was a civil war. It was 85 years ago but there are more than 100,000 people who are still buried in mass graves. Spain owes a debt to all of those victims and to their families. And the families have been asking for those graves to be open for a long time. This is a debt that we now have to pay.”

Turning toward Spanish history is an unexpected pivot for Almodóvar, who recently completed his first English-language project, The Human Voice, a short film based on Jean Cocteau’s play of the same name, and starring Tilda Swinton. After many years of refusing Hollywood offers – including the chance to direct Brokeback Mountain and Sister Act – the filmmaker had been gearing up for his first Anglophone feature, an adaptation of Lucia Berlin’s short story collection A Manual for Cleaning Women starring Cate Blanchett. Covid protocols and his political instincts steered him in a different direction.

“My films have always been political,” he says. “Films don’t have to be ideological to be political. The sexuality that was present in my films through so many different characters that had never been portrayed before in Spanish films at all. That too, I think, is a political attitude that you take as a director. But it’s only been in this new century that I’ve felt that keen interest as a director to be able to really deal with political history.”

The maternal themes of Parallel Mothers are more familiar. Growing up in a small town in the La Mancha province of Spain, Almodóvar was inspired by his mother and other women in the community. It’s an influence that has coalesced into films such as Volver, All About My Mother, Julieta, High Heels and, more recently, Pain and Glory.

“I always come back to the characters of mothers,” he says. “Motherhood is blessed in my movies. There are many different models of motherhood. For me, it’s like talking about love or passion or beauty. You can make a thousand different movies about it. There are three very different mothers in Parallel Mothers but also they are different from the other mothers in my other movies. Ana’s mother is the first mother I have written that doesn’t have maternal instincts. That was new completely for me. She prefers her career to motherhood. I don’t judge her. I think mothers like that suffer a lot. Motherhood has changed a lot in the last 30 years. Families no longer need that religious or Catholic element that defined families in the past. Now you can be a mother without ever having sexual relations. When I’m talking about mothers, I’m talking also about family. That is also a subject that fascinates me.”

As with Parallel Mothers, which cleverly conflates the past and present, the director’s female characters retain the feminine characteristics that intrigued him as a boy.

“I was surrounded all the time by women like my mother and our female neighbours,” recalls Almodóvar. “Back in the 1950s, the men were always away during the day. You only ever used to see your father at night-time when he came back from work. The father figure was always a figure of authority for me at the time. I’ve always identified with the mother figure, my mother and these women I was brought up with. The women used to just talk all the time about life about what was happening in the village. They used to wonder or tell stories about who’d maybe committed suicide, who’d got pregnant, possible cases of incest. They’d talk about these things doing their arts and crafts, like sewing, at the time. The female characters that I portray in my films are always strong because these women were strong. They were survivors of the war. They were the people that got through that period of hunger and shortages and took us into a better world.”

He has fond memories of the production of 1995’s The Flower of My Secret, in which the matriarch, played by Chus Lampreave, was based directly on his own mother.

“Every single thing she says is something that my mother used to say. My mother was present for a lot of the shoot. And sometimes, she would correct the actress, and tell her that she would say the line in a different way. Or she would tell me to correct the actress. It was very funny.”

Parallel Mothers opens January 28th 

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