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“Spain has a bad relationship with its past,” said Pedro Almodóvar during a recent visit to Los Angeles. “The Spaniards don’t like to be told about the darker parts of their history.”

Beloved internationally for his exuberant melodramas, often laden with scorching eroticism, Almodóvar has always transgressed gender conventions and religious dogmas without overt political statements – especially not about the Franco regime of his early years. The choice to avoid approaching this period head-on in his work was deliberate.

But his latest dramatic creation, “Parallel Mothers”, which is now released in limited edition after a world premiere at the Venice Film Festival, explicitly honors the thousands of victims of the late 1930s Spanish Civil War and its aftermath. , during which the murderous dictator seized power until 1975.

Oscar winner Penélope Cruz, Almodóvar’s longtime muse, plays Janis, a photographer who befriends a younger woman, Ana (a fresh-faced Milena Smit), when they give both born to their respective daughters in the same hospital. As the tangles of heart ensue, Janis also tries to orchestrate the exhumation of mass graves – a horrific byproduct of the armed conflict – in her family’s rural hometown.

Throughout the dictatorship and for many years after, Almodóvar recalls, people in Spain buried their memories of the atrocities for fear of reprisal for speaking out.

“My father went to war when he was 18. He wasn’t a Republican, but they took him to fight. At home, he never said a single word about the war, ”he said. “Most families had a pathological fear that something could happen to their children or grandchildren. “

Cruz, speaking by video call, explained that his family never learned exactly what had happened to one of his great-grandfathers, but, as was the custom, they did not dare worry too much.

“There are so many mysteries on this subject in many families. There are a lot of people who still don’t know what happened, ”she said. “If you ask your grandmother about your grandfather or a great grandfather and she says, ‘I don’t know what happened’, you can’t push much more. far to get information because it is a very delicate and traumatic subject.

Likewise, Spanish cinema as a whole was reluctant to engage in this dark period. Of the few titles that exist, Almodóvar considers Victor Erize’s two, “The Spirit of the Hive” (1973) and “El Sur” (1984), the most notable to date.

But now, as the country seems more willing to discuss the truth, “parallel mothers” have entered the conversation. Since his release home, Almodóvar has received numerous letters from family members asking if some of the cases depicted in the film (such as that of a man buried with a glass eye) were inspired by the last moments of loved ones. . And they could be, since every detail of the film about the missing comes from documented sources.

Earlier this year, Spain’s Socialist Party introduced the Democratic Memory Law, finally allocating institutional support and financial resources to unearth the remains still in anonymous graves across the country and to identify those in relatively good condition. .

Milena Smit as Ana and Penélope Cruz as Janis in “Parallel Mothers”.

(Iglesias Mas / Sony Pictures Classics)

Prior to this crucial initiative, forensic anthropologists have volunteered to conduct sporadic excavations, as Janis fights in “Parallel Mothers.”

“[The argument] against exhumations is that they would open up old wounds, ”Almodóvar said. “But I’ve talked to a lot of families and all they want is to have a place with the name of a family member where they can take flowers. It is something fundamental to which every human being has a right. “

While the conflict may seem far away, Almodóvar believes understanding history has gained new relevance as a far-right party has gained ground in Spain in recent years. In what the director describes as the pinnacle of fake news, they put forward a revisionist program telling Spanish history according to Francoist values.

Against the backdrop of the scarcity of the Spanish Civil War in local productions, Almodóvar finds it curious that Mexican director Guillermo del Toro made two acclaimed films with the backdrop: “The Devil’s Backbone” and “The Labyrinth of Pan “.

Almodóvar produced the first, a ghost story set in an orphanage, through his company El Deseo, helping the Master of Monsters navigate Spanish culture. He is impressed with how del Toro has managed to survive within the Hollywood system by maintaining his artistic integrity. The two maintained a friendship based on mutual admiration.

“He’s so loving and always celebrates my work,” Almodóvar said. “Every time we see each other he tells me that he always wants to make a third Spanish Civil War film with us. And I say to him: ‘Guillermo, when you want to do it, we are there for you.’ “

Revisiting the past has always been an integral part of the Almodóvar process. And some scenarios require longer gestation periods – he first spoke to Cruz about “Parallel Mothers” about two decades ago. By the time they filmed “Broken Embraces” in the late 2000s, he had a cure. (A poster for ‘Parallel Mothers’ can actually be spotted in this movie. I have something written about, ”he explained of the Easter egg.) Over the years that followed, Cruz repeatedly inquired about the story.

Fast forward to the 2020 COVID-19 lockdown, which lasted three months in Spain, when Almodóvar returned to the storyline. During this fruitful period of isolation, he finished the story and began filming almost immediately. To avoid having characters wearing masks on the screens, and to explain why, he decided to end his fiction in 2019.

A woman in a red sweater leans against a railing while a man with white hair and sunglasses sits at a table outside

“Parallel Mothers” is the eighth film collaboration between Pedro Almodóvar and Penélope Cruz, seven of which featured Cruz in an important role.

(Kent Nishimura / Los Angeles Times)

“Parallel Mothers” is Almodóvar and Cruz’s seventh collaboration (eight if you count his cameo in the scorching airplane comedy “I’m So Excited”). In all but one, Cruz played mothers in distress.

“Penelope has blind faith in me,” Almodóvar said. “She trusts me more than I trust myself.” Ever since he first saw his on-screen debut “Jamón Jamón”, Almodóvar felt that Cruz was an atypical actress, and on the other hand, a booming Cruz knew that she wanted to pursue them. dramatic arts immediately after watching “Tie Me Up, Tie Me Down” as a teenager. When the director first chose her in “Live Flesh”, for a memorable part of about eight minutes, her sincere dream of working with him came true.

It had been a few years since the couple’s last collaboration, and Cruz was thrilled to receive a call from his favorite director amid the uncertainty of the pandemic. “It was a joy to know that he was writing it and that we were going to do it together,” she said. To play Janis, Almodóvar asked him to endure the longest and most arduous rehearsal he has ever done (around three months), in part to help his novice co-star, Smit.

The interpersonal dynamic between Janis de Cruz and Ana de Smit presents a new example of open families that have been an essential part of Almodóvar’s work, dating back to the “Law of Desire”. But Janis was born out of Almodóvar’s admiration for the hard-won freedoms of women in the 21st century. “Today, a woman who wants to be a mother does not have to be married. She doesn’t even need to have sex to become a mother, ”he said.

That something as inherently feminine as motherhood is achievable for women without men being indispensable strikes the storyteller like a triumph out of time. “This is the most feminist character I have written since they are all feminists. I have given all of my female characters enormous moral autonomy, ”Almodóvar said.

“He wrote some of the most amazing characters for women in movie history, and that message of respect and equality has always been there,” noted Cruz. “I played other women for Pedro who were also feminists in their own way. Even the woman in ‘Volver’ or Sister Rosa in ‘All About My Mother’ are characters with a very open mind, maybe in different ways but they are all fighting for the same thing.

Almodóvar thinks that Janis’ character was particularly complex for Cruz because she had never experienced the feeling of guilt and shame that comes with keeping a secret. “Janis [is] always aware of what she says and what she does. There is always a contradiction in it, ”explained the director.

“My relationship with my own feelings is distinct from that of Janis. It’s much easier for me to express myself, easier for me to cry, ”said Cruz. “I’m much more transparent than she is in that sense.”

A woman looks up left

Penélope Cruz won Best Actress at the Venice Film Festival and Los Angeles Film Critics Association for “Parallel Mothers”.

(Kent Nishimura / Los Angeles Times)

For her heartbreaking portrayal, Cruz won the Best Actress award at the 2021 Venice Film Festival and most recently the same award from the Los Angeles Film Critics Association.

While reflecting on mothers, Almodóvar returns to the homeland and laments how Spanish conservatives, much like in the United States, have co-opted patriotism.

“The right has stolen our flag. In Spain, if someone wears the flag on their clothes, hat or watch, you know that person has far-right ideas, ”Almodóvar explains. “They stole our national symbols and equated them with their ideologies. “

What he recognizes as his place of origin is not linked to political affiliations but to the words that give him a voice and to those who raised him. As such, it cannot be taken away.

“The Spanish language is my homeland,” Almodóvar said. “And my homeland is also these La Mancha construction sites full of women who work and talk about everything that has happened in our street. This street is for me like the place where Gabo [Gabriel García Márquez] wrote “One hundred years of loneliness”.