Q&A: Almodóvar on unearthing the past in ‘Parallel Mothers’

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This image released by Sony Pictures Classics shows Milena Smit, left, director Pedro Almodóvar, center, and Penélope Cruz on the set of “Parallel Mothers.” (Iglesias Más/Sony Pictures Classics via AP)

NEW YORK (AP) — Pedro Almodóvar has a theory that his films with male protagonists, like his autobiographical 2019 film “Pain and Glory,” are darker and more somber.

“I look inside myself when I talk about male characters,” says Almodóvar.

“Parallel Mothers,”which Sony Pictures Classics begins releasing in theaters Friday, returns Almodóvar to more melodramatic territory. Penelope Cruz and Milena Smit play young mothers who meet at the hospital where their newborns are accidentally switched at birth. This secret plays out in unpredictable ways while the film also investigates another hidden past: Spain’s mass graves from the Spanish Civil War.

In recent years, a national dialogue in Spain has brought renewed interest and political discord over exhuming the graves from Francisco Franco’s regime, which began with the 1930s civil war and ended with his death, in 1975. Some 19,000 of an estimated 114,000 victims have been recovered in the last four decades.

“Parallel Mothers” may not be as self-reflective as Almodóvar’s last film, but it’s the 72-year-old director’s most politically introspective movie and his first to grapple with the legacy of Franco’s reign. Almodóvar emerged as a filmmaker in Spain’s liberated post-Franco years.

When “Parallel Mothers” was screening this fall at the New York Film Festival, Almodóvar met a reporter at a midtown hotel where he spoke sometimes in English, sometimes through an interpreter, about a film that, like his 1999 masterpiece “All About My Mother,” is centrally concerned with motherhood.

“I’ll continue to be interested in mothers,” he said. “You can have a thousand different mothers, and they can birth a thousand different genres.”

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AP: You’ve made an acclaimed short film, “The Human Voice,”with Tilda Swinton, and now “Parallel Mothers” during the pandemic. Have the last two years reframed anything for you about filmmaking?

ALMODÓVAR: It made me aware of the solitude in which I was living. Because loneliness, despite the fact that I was condemned to confinement, was something that I already experienced in recent times while writing. I think that now I am overcoming loneliness by going out a little more, going to eat with friends, and precisely because it seemed very sad to me that when I was condemned to confinement, I discovered that I was already used to being confined.

AP: You began the pandemic writing wonderful diaries about your movie watching.

ALMODÓVAR: At that moment, I was sick. I got the virus the first week. Even before the first week. I had just arrived from LA after being at the Oscars at the end of February. Then I felt like I had a flu and stayed at home. Three days later, they called for the quarantine. The days were so long that I tried just to talk and write something about the situation. One day, I was disobedient and went into the street to see Madrid completely deserted. It’s a very impressive image that I wanted to have. So I pretended to go buy something just to see, just to see the town.

AP: It must have felt ironic that in the midst of a pandemic you were making a movie where swabs and lab tests, in proving the children’s maternity, is central to the plot.

ALMODÓVAR: When I was writing the movie a year before, it was like science fiction. But when we made the film, it did feel very familiar.

AP: What initially interested you in making a film that deals with the mass graves from the Spanish Civil War?

ALMODÓVAR: This has come to me with maturity, in cinematographic terms and also in personal terms. It’s been some time since I’ve been wanting to make a movie about the mass graves, which Spanish cinema has not really touched on. One of the things that really struck me was when in about 2013, 2014 some UN rapporteurs came to take a look on the ground at what was happening in Spain. They were very struck by the fact that it was the great-grandchildren who were the ones demanding that we look at this problem of the past. Spain has a very bad relationship with the past. For the 40 years after the war, there was this almost pathological fear to speak of the war. There was this silence that enshrouded Spain. It’s a generation born during democracy that are asking for the graves to be exhumed.

AP: Your entry point to that history, though, comes through a melodrama that cloaks the film’s more political intentions.

ALMODÓVAR: I didn’t want to only make a movie only about the mass graves. I did it through a character that has a legacy from her mother, who saved her and raised her because she was an orphan. To open the mass grave is to demonstrate that they existed. What Franco did to them was to take all humanity away, to condemn them to non-existence. I was attracted to telling the story through this mother because she’s committed to unearthing historical truth at the same time that she, in her personal life, is hiding that truth.

AP: Your early films in the 1980s followed years of censorship in Spain and contributed significantly to a new post-Franco period in the arts. You’ve said before that Franco had to die for you to live. Was “Parallel Mother” motivated by a new surge in fascism?

ALMODÓVAR: When I started making movies, he had just died. I would have never been able to make movies if he was still alive. In Spain, because we had that awful experience of civil war, it was as if we were inoculated against it. Even though I could see the far right growing in France — of course Trump happened here, Bolsonaro happened in Brazil — there was a part of me that thought that the far right wouldn’t actually arrive in Spain because of that traumatic experience.

But sometimes I think this is the Trump effect. The fact that he was able to give voice to his far-right leanings emboldened others around the world. They lost their fear. It all boiled up, including in Spain. Now there are things happening that were impossible in the ’90s and the ’80s. There are more homophobic attacks, more xenophobia. It’s a very negative feeling to see that all the values we fought for, we yet again have to rise up and fight for.

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Follow AP Film Writer Jake Coyle on Twitter at: http://twitter.com/jakecoyleAP

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