If there is one filmmaker likely to persuade me back into the cinema it is Pedro Almodóvar, although admittedly I did only watch The Human Voice on a streamer – it was too soon to go back to the cinema then. This time I chose a large cinema for an 11.00 am screening when I hoped for plenty of empty seats. That all worked. The only problem was that wearing a mask meant my glasses steamed up for the first few minutes and at the end of the film I experienced weeping while wearing a mask and that was something new – but I generally weep in melodramas so I should have expected it.
The sensation of hearing Alberto Iglesias’ score accompanying the usual beautifully designed titles for an Almodóvar film – this time in red and black on a light background – was wonderfully encouraging and I knew I would enjoy the next two hours. I had heard some comments that this was not vintage Almodóvar and some viewers seem to have been underwhelmed. I can see why they might feel that way but everything worked for me. I think that this is in one sense a relatively simple narrative, almost streamlined in its presentation, but that it has the the political ‘kick’ that I was hoping for and that seems to be much more pronounced than in his earlier films. For much of its running time this is almost a chamber piece with perhaps five main characters, only opening out into the presentation of a community in the last section. At the centre of the film is Penélope Cruz who I find it very difficult to view objectively as an actor and not as some form of celluloid/digital goddess.
Last night I watched again the opening to Carne trémula (Live Flesh, Spain 1997). In a prologue set in January 1970 during a state of emergency under the Franco dictatorship, Penélope Cruz plays a young woman giving birth on a Madrid corporation bus late at night. The rest of the film’s narrative is set in the present when the boy born on the bus has become a man. I mention this prologue not just because it confirms the status of Ms Cruz as a long-time Almodóvar collaborator, but also signals a key element of the status of motherhood under Franco, shown by Almodóvar in black and white newsreel style footage of the birth being celebrated by the Mayor of Madrid and the head of the public bus service. It has been rare to see direct representation of Spanish society under Franco in Almodóvar’s films. In his early ‘underground’ career as part of the la movida in Madrid, he preferred to ignore the immediate past and the politics of the present but since then the history of the Francoist past has sometimes been palpable but not central in the narratives. In this new film the Penélope Cruz character (Janis) again gives birth and the birth itself will be both functional and symbolic in recognising the horror and trauma faced by families in 1936 at the start of the Civil War.
Janis is a fashion and celebrity photographer in Madrid who finds herself on a commission to photograph Arturo (Israel Elejalde), a forensic archaeologist. He’s an attractive man and they meet after the shoot. He is also the right person to ask about exhumation. Janis has family back in her village – as is common in many of Almodóvar’s films since he himself came to the city from La Mancha. The villagers want to exhume a small mass grave where their menfolk were buried after execution by Falangists on the first day of the war. This has been possible since the 2007 Law of Historical Memory passed by the socialist government of José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero but succeeding governments have not subsidised or encouraged exhumations. But Janis has photographs taken by her great-grandfather and there are still survivors who were children in 1936. Arturo believes exhumation is possible and that the deaths are of historical importance because of the date. The narrative will cover the next two or three years during which Janis will have a baby and Arturo will pursue the case for exhumation.
Janis finds herself in a hospital room with Ana (Milena Smit), a teenager whose mother is Teresa (Aitana Sánchez-Gijón), a divorced actress from a conservative family in Granada. Janis is a single mother as well and very independent. Her main friend and support is Elena (Almodóvar regular, Rossy de Palma), head of the agency that finds her photography commissions and from the same village. Alongside Arturo, these are the five main characters. I’m sure I don’t have to spell out the situation. Janis and Ana are the ‘parallel mothers’ who both have their babies to care for and who want to maintain a friendship after leaving the maternity ward. Janis is older and more experienced and Ana has had a difficult family life – but not one lacking in material resources. The crucial scene is that between Janis and Ana when Ana declares to Janis’ dismay that she should put the past behind her and just think about the future. Where will Ana be when the exhumation takes place outside the village?
Sight & Sound ran a major piece on Almodóvar in the March 2022 issue. Maria Delgado a regular writer on Spanish cinema for the magazine has talked to Pedro Almodóvar and provided a detailed overview of the film narrative, including the background to the the history of ‘the disappeared’ in the Civil War. She reminds us that Amnesty International has listed Spain as the country with the second largest number of ‘forcibly disappeared persons’ (after Cambodia) and 114,000 civilians killed by Franco during the Civil War and its immediate aftermath. Delgado refers to limpieza social (‘social cleansing’) by Francoists to eradicate opposition in the state. I don’t remember seeing this phrase before and I had thought that the use of ‘cleansing’ in this way was an invention of analysts of the conflicts associated with the break-up of Yugoslavia. ‘Cleansing’ is a hideous term that fully conveys the inhumanity of all forms of fascism. As Delgado suggests, one of the worst horrors of the Spanish Civil War was the way in which families were silenced by fear and the numbing pain caused by their loved ones who have ‘disappeared’. If you are able to read Maria Delgado’s piece it really helps to understand the film.
I’ve suggested that the narrative structure of the film is relatively ‘simple’ (barring some time leaps) but as Maria Delgado pints out, its meanings are complex and there are many layers of meaning. The story is essentially about the women, both the four characters and the the women who are remembered and the histories of those who tried to keep families together over the long period of ‘silence’. It is also about babies and the world into which they are born and which still harbours within it the evils of the past – Almodóvar has been attacked in the media by the right in Spain. The film is also about images and photography – the photographs of the men who were executed that are used in the film are the work of Virxilio Viéitez (1930-2008). In a sense the film is a political melodrama in which the Spanish women of 2021 have the opportunity to build different lives as women free from the terrors of Francoism and its residual evils. Janis (named after Janis Joplin) and Ana might disagree about remembering the past but can they come together to make the future?
It is pleasing that this slightly non-mainstream film seems to have had an extended residence at Vue in Leeds, where I saw it. Never a huge Almodovar fan, I was roused somewhat by the astonishing scene at the end of the exhumed grave. Some other films strongly tipped for Oscar’s attention seem to be more difficult for the non-streaming public to catch. Showcase are providing a single day where you can watch ‘The Power Of The Dog’ in mid March. Booked.
Almodóvar’s films may be in Spanish – and therefore automatically ‘specialised films’ – but they are usually released more widely than other foreign language titles. He has been consistently one of the most popular directors of non-English language films since the 1990s.