Pedro Almodóvar was having a rough afternoon. The filmmaker sat at a kitchen table, chin in hand, looking tired and frustrated, a pink face mask covering his nose and mouth. For two months, he had been shooting “Parallel Mothers,” his 21st feature-length film, in and around Madrid, once a hot spot of the global Covid-19 pandemic, without any significant problems. His production company had hired nurses, conducted thousands of Covid tests and made cast and crew use two FFP2 masks every day, all in an effort to keep the movie on schedule. But now, on a Monday near the end of May, in the final days of shooting, when dozens of crew members had gathered an hour north of Madrid to film the final interior scene, Almodóvar faced an insurmountable obstacle. One of his lead actors refused to work.
Milena Smit, the 25-year-old newcomer Almodóvar’s team found through casting calls, sat across the table from him in a gray hoodie and short wig. Penélope Cruz, who earned her first Academy Award nomination for her lead role in his 2006 film “Volver,” stood nearby in a striped sweater dress. In her arms, Cruz cradled a 14-month-old girl named Luna Auria Contreras. For weeks, Auria had performed like a pro: babbling on cue, never minding the camera. But now, when it was impossible to replace her, she would not follow the script.
Almodóvar needed Auria to sit quietly in a highchair between Smit and Cruz, or at the very least in Smit’s lap, while the women had an important conversation. But every time they brought Auria to the table, she began to wail. The crew tried desperately to cheer her. They offered her a fresh bottle, walked her around the kitchen with her father, brought in Cruz’s adorable black dog. Nothing worked.
“Look, cariño, do you know we have only three days left, preciosa?” Cruz coaxed in sugary Spanish. In Cruz’s arms, Auria went quiet, as if mesmerized by the star’s smoky voice and large eyes. Placed in Smit’s lap facing the camera, however, she began to scream.
“I think that girl is tired,” Cruz said to Almodóvar. His mass of spiky white hair was haloed by the sun slipping through a shuttered window.
“I think that girl isn’t going to work today,” Almodóvar replied. His voice was flat, calm. But everyone knew he described a logistical nightmare. It was already midafternoon. They still needed to travel to another location to shoot an exterior scene before the sun set around 10.
As the crew fussed over Auria, Almodóvar stared at a backsplash of hand-painted tiles. Each cream-colored square was graced with arcs and triangles of marine blue. To make this kitchen look as if it were built in the 1930s, his design team had ripped out a 1970s remodel, knocked down a wall, restored an old chimney, replaced the flooring, built a wood countertop and installed this hand-painted backsplash. Almodóvar oversaw every decision. He likes to pick the books on his characters’ shelves, the cups from which they drink. “Each lead character’s house is also a character,” the set decorator Vincent Díaz said. (Most of the interviews for this article were conducted in Spanish.) In “Parallel Mothers,” this kitchen served as the backdrop for two scenes that, together, lasted about three minutes.
Almodóvar stood up and announced that Auria needed to nap. As he exited the building, he called for his assistant to bring him a laptop. If Auria would not work, he would rewrite the scene so he could keep shooting without her.
Penélope Cruz, right, and Milena Smit in “Parallel Mothers” (2021).Credit…Iglesias Más/El Deseo/Sony Pictures Classics
All his life, Almodóvar has gotten through difficulties by turning to his imagination. Born in 1949, he grew up in a Spain that was largely cowed by Gen. Francisco Franco’s dictatorship. Franco took control of the country in 1939, after he and his right-wing military forces won the Spanish Civil War, and he ruled until his death in 1975. During and immediately after the war, he and his supporters sought not only to rid Spain of liberals, democrats, anarchists, socialists and communists but also to cleanse the country of Jews, Romanis, atheists, homosexuals, Freemasons, feminists and labor organizers. Almodóvar — an atheist who discovered his sexuality after watching Warren Beatty in the 1961 film “Splendor in the Grass” — was clearly among the undesirables. Yet even when Franco was in power, Almodóvar felt an absolute liberty whenever he sat down to write a story or a screenplay. “It’s a very clear feeling,” he told me. “There’s no limit that I give myself, or that I impose on myself, or that I find.”
During the 1970s, when he shot his first Super 8 shorts and his first full-length feature, Almodóvar’s disinhibited imagination allowed him to revise plots on the fly as the friends who played his characters dropped in and out of shoots. From the beginning, his work defied every principle of Francoism. His 1975 short, “The Fall of Sodom,” used some 30 men in cross-dress and makeup to re-enact the moment in Genesis when Sodomites surround Lot’s house. “All that could be done only in the countryside because they would have taken us to jail,” Almodóvar said.
At 72, the self-taught filmmaker remains at the peak of his powers. His 2019 film “Pain and Glory” earned two Academy Award nominations, the sixth and seventh for his movies. “Parallel Mothers” seems poised to bring him more. He has built a production company that ensures his artistic freedom, has nurtured some of Spain’s greatest actors and has created comedies that rival those of film masters Billy Wilder and Luis Buñuel. Like them, he has a genius for making the outrageous seem ordinary. But where Wilder dripped acid on romance and Buñuel roasted the bourgeoisie, Almodóvar’s movies are rarely cynical. Instead, he favors love and empathy. He has probably done more than any other director to transform the cinematic portrayal of gay and transgender people, and he has deliberately dismantled the machista perspective on women in film. And now with “Parallel Mothers,” he is directly confronting the legacy of Franco for the first time.
When Auria woke from her nap, Almodóvar was ready with a rewrite. He would have Smit tell Cruz that the girl was tired and had been put to bed, a fiction that was also a truth. But as if she sensed that her leverage had disappeared, the little star behaved like an angel. After their first take, Cruz blew her kisses. They were back on schedule.
Almodóvar was among the first wave of Spaniards to catch Covid-19 in early March 2020. The virus hit him like a bad cold: low fever, muscle aches, upset stomach, headaches. Nothing terrible. Financially, however, Spain’s strict lockdown felt like a catastrophe. At the time “Parallel Mothers” was nothing more than a forgotten file on his computer. Instead, he was scheduled to shoot a short film, “The Human Voice,” with Tilda Swinton in early April. The meticulously constructed set waited inside a warehouse on the outskirts of Madrid. But lockdown prevented him from using it. Would he need to abandon the project and trash months of work?
Ever since Pedro and his younger brother, Agustín, pooled all their resources to start the production company El Deseo in 1986, they have guarded Pedro’s artistic independence. No one can insist that he cut a trans character or redesign a controversial poster or skip the hand-painted kitchen tiles. El Deseo owns the negatives and the copyrights to all but three of his films. This kind of artistic control, however, requires careful financial management. Pedro’s films usually cost around 10 million euros. “On my side I always need to handle the money with a kind of whip, as if it were an animal,” Agustín told me. If they lost too much on “The Human Voice,” the beast could inflict significant wounds, affecting El Deseo’s budget for future films.
Agustín began helping Pedro with his shoots in the 1970s, when he was a university student. A former professor of mathematics, he is one of the first people to read Pedro’s scripts and has done cameos in all of Pedro’s feature films. From the start, he was unruffled by Pedro’s frank portrayal of gay relationships. “The fact that Agustín is the producer for my films makes everything easier for me, in every sense,” Pedro told me. “Not only during the shooting, during the creation of the film, but also after.” Together the brothers manage all the important decisions affecting Pedro’s career. Michael Barker, the co-president of Sony Pictures Classics, remembers noticing a strange feature in El Deseo’s contracts during the 1980s. “They each signed the name Almodóvar exactly the same,” he said. “You never knew if this was Agustín or this was Pedro.”
In the spring of 2020, it was Agustín who saved “The Human Voice” by negotiating a reduced rent with the warehouse and by tasking El Deseo’s staff with the job of figuring out new, Covid-safe protocols for shooting. Pedro, meanwhile, paced up and down his apartment, unable to concentrate on his scheduled projects. Who knew when, or if, they could ever be made? He tried to ignore Madrid’s rising death toll by burying himself in movies, books and music. “If I stop to look at reality, I think I’ll be struck down,” he wrote in an online Spanish newspaper. “And I don’t want to be.”
Then his personal assistant, Lola García, suggested that he take another look at the screenplay for “Parallel Mothers.” Almodóvar often lets his stories sit for years before turning them into movies. His computer contains dozens of embryonic scripts, most of them seen only by Pedro, Agustín and García. He began working on “Parallel Mothers” in the early 2000s and visited a maternity ward so that he could research the story about two strangers who give birth on the same day. A fictional poster for the movie appears in his 2009 film “Broken Embraces.” But then Pedro abandoned the script, frustrated by a couple of narrative knots. Revisiting the story during lockdown, however, felt different. “Because of the capacity for concentration that existed in confinement, because nobody was going to stop by, you weren’t going anywhere,” he said. “So I revised half the script, and in that moment, the pieces began to fall into place.” When Spain began lifting its lockdown in early May, Almodóvar had the screenplay nearly finished and, after he shot “The Human Voice” that summer, El Deseo pivoted to preproduction for “Parallel Mothers.”
Almodóvar always knew that he wanted the movie to juggle two plots: one about the mothers and another about Cruz’s character’s quest to unearth the bones of her great-grandfather, who was murdered in a political roundup conducted by Franco-affiliated rebels at the start of the Spanish Civil War. In this way, he tied a plot set in 2016 to a dirty history that many Spaniards would like to ignore.
Together, the plots also dramatize the movie’s central theme: the difficulty of honesty. “It’s the moral dilemma of a woman who on one hand is searching for the historical truth about her ancestors,” he said. “However, in her own life that truth doesn’t exist. And that provokes a terrific complex of guilt and even of shame.”
Early reviews in the United States have raved. “The picture draws you in and holds you,” Owen Gleiberman wrote in Variety. “And it may prove to be his most popular film since ‘All About My Mother’ (1999), even though it couldn’t be more different in tone.” This September, when the movie premiered at the Venice International Film Festival, it received a nine-minute standing ovation, and Cruz took home the Volpi Cup for Best Actress.
“Let’s see, when are the actresses coming?” Almodóvar asked, as he walked along a dirt road late Tuesday afternoon. Standing in the blazing sun, he looked like a man ready to play dominoes in Miami: immaculate sneakers, dark pants, paisley guayabera, white sunglasses, straw fedora, pink face mask. The location for the last two days of shooting was near the small town of Torremocha de Jarama, on a farm road bordered by tall grasses and wildflowers. The view shimmered in the heat: purple thistles, red corn poppies, tiny white daisies, silver grasses, olive groves, fields of tender green crops.
“They’re there,” a crew member told him. Half a dozen extras, women dressed in shades of brown and green, exited a van parked at the top of the road. A few yards away, Cruz sat in a silver Subaru, talking on her phone. When Almodóvar headed toward her after greeting the extras, she came out. For a few minutes, the two of them stood alone, talking near the remnants of a rough stone bridge. When she was 16, Cruz pretended that she was two years older so she could get into a theater to see Almodóvar’s 1990 film, “Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!” Afterward, she walked circles in a plaza near the theater, simmering with ambition. I have to meet this man, she decided, I want to try to find an agent, to study acting, so that one day I can work with him. “He was like a breath of fresh air during some years of so much change,” Cruz told me. Listening to his interviews, she felt amazed by the honesty with which he spoke about love, sex, politics and art. “What he represented was so much more than film.” The two are now close friends; “Parallel Mothers” is their seventh collaboration.
Smit, Auria, Auria’s mother and Rossy de Palma, the iconic Spanish actress Almodóvar discovered in the 1980s, exited another van. Cruz took Auria into her arms.
“Have you come angry today or not?” Almodóvar asked the toddler, his voice both affectionate and edgy. He planned to finish the film with a close-up of Auria — “a close-up of her that’s like memory, the witness for the future,” he later explained — but after the problems she gave him the day before, he worried that she might not be up for the job. “Let’s get going, chicas,” he called as he headed down the road.
It was a simple shot: A group headed by Cruz, Smit, Auria, de Palma and García would walk along the road, several of them carrying large black-and-white photographs. “The rehearsal will consist in nothing more than walking forward,” Almodóvar instructed. “Those of you who are related can talk a bit, but really you’re fairly quiet.” He urged Raúl Manchado, who was operating the camera, to get closer to the group. The landscape was stunning, but Almodóvar wanted the characters to fill the frame. “Raúl, even tighter,” he called. A few yards down the road, Manchado adjusted his position with the Steadi-cam. “There. Exactly that shot. And maintain it the whole time.” Positioned so close, the camera also captured the faces in the photographs: Each one represented a man murdered and buried in a mass grave at the start of the Spanish Civil War.
Almodóvar often divides his films into two categories: those set in the “feminine world” and those set in the “masculine world.” In the feminine films, men are often not just minor characters, they’re minor concerns. If they do function as objects of fierce attachment, they’re still given only a handful of lines. “From the beginning, I gave women — all kinds of women, nuns, modern daughters, housewives, etc. — no matter the profession, I equipped them with an enormous moral autonomy, and that really was a political thing for me,” Almodóvar told me. There’s one significant male character in “Parallel Mothers,” a forensic anthropologist played by the accomplished stage actor Israel Elejalde. But the film’s center of gravity is always the women: their friendships, their passions, their daughters and their dead.
“What I love most about Almodóvar’s films is that there’s none of this very Spanish thing of the Judeo-Christian guilt,” de Palma told me that Tuesday in a dressing room. She mimed whipping her own back and laughed. “All his characters can go through the worst circumstances, through traumatic events, but then something always helps them push up. And they say, ‘Well, with what we have left, we’ll try to be happy.’” He never punishes his female leads for sinning; instead he celebrates their resilience. In “Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!” Victoria Abril plays a recovering junkie and former porn star who still winds up in love and engaged. In “Volver,” Cruz covers up a murder to protect her daughter — then starts a thriving business.
Most of his female characters are based on his mother and on a girlfriend he lived with for three years in the 1970s. (“I’m a gay person,” he said. “But during those years I was attracted to both sexes.”) But even when he channels his own emotions, Almodóvar sometimes writes through the perspective of a female character, as he did in “The Flower of My Secret” (1995) and “Julieta” (2016). He can identify with women, and this may be the reason so many exceptional actresses — Julieta Serrano, Cecilia Roth, Chus Lampreave, Marisa Paredes, Carmen Maura, de Palma, Abril, Cruz and, most recently, Swinton — have given him some of their best performances.
Serrano told me that Almodóvar changed her life when he cast her in “Dark Habits.” At the time, she was known as a great tragic actress; she thought she was incapable of comedy. “I’m going to ruin your film,” she told him. To which he responded, “Don’t be such a masochist.”
In “Parallel Mothers,” Cruz plays a fashion photographer named Janis who has an affair with a married man. A long white curtain spilling magnificently out of an open window tells us all we need to know about the depth and carelessness of their passion. Cut to the consequences: Janis caressing her belly in a maternity ward, on the brink of giving birth, the father nowhere in sight. Instead, Janis shares a room with 17-year-old Ana (Smit), who dreads the arrival of her own baby.
At first, Janis seems a lot like the frank, generous women Cruz has played in her previous Almodóvar roles. But midway through the film, she discovers an inconvenient truth, one that threatens the foundations of her happiness, and she turns downright calculating. Briefly, she considers informing the people most affected by her discovery. Then she buries that impulse, changes her phone number and decides to act as if she knows nothing. The pressure of deception changes Janis: Her smiles tighten, her eyes dart from side to side. She looks like a criminal trying to dodge a sentence.
Almodóvar conducted weekly, no-tech rehearsals with Cruz and Smit for months before the shooting began to get their performances right. “They were crying all the time,” Almodóvar recalled. But he didn’t want a movie filled with tears. He imagined women who were restrained even when their emotions ran high, who cried only in extremis. So they rehearsed and rehearsed. And later, during his daily meetings with the editor Teresa Font during the shoot, they often cut the footage to include only the moments before and after the teardrops fell. When Cruz saw the final film, she realized that Almodóvar’s choices gave the movie an emotional suspense, turning the maternal drama into a kind of thriller. Near the end of the film, when Smit snaps on a baby carrier, it feels like the end of the world.
The extras laughed as they climbed into the huge, cross-shaped pit, strewing jokes over some unspoken distress. Most were professional archaeologists or volunteer gravediggers, friends of the forensic anthropologist René Pacheco Vila. In 2016, Pacheco opened a grave that held more than 20 bodies beneath an ordinary tombstone, in a cemetery that contained other similarly disguised mass graves. That moment was captured in the Emmy Award-winning documentary “The Silence of Others” (2018), which El Deseo produced. Now Pacheco and his colleagues lay down in a false grave for “Parallel Mothers” and pretended that they themselves were the dead.
“I’m used to living this from the other side, no?” Pacheco told me later. “It was a very strange sensation.”
Standing at the edge of the pit, Almodóvar’s first assistant director, Manu Calvo, positioned the extras and de Palma, glancing back and forth between them and an image of 10 skeletons on his phone. He told one man to lie down next to another. “How do you want,” the man retorted, “Like a 69?” Laughter. Calvo ignored the joke. “Get a little closer.”
Minutes later, Almodóvar appeared to examine the arrangements, while an assistant held a black umbrella over his head to protect him from the sun. Watching Calvo arrange the extras in the pit, Smit looked pensive and sad. “In the end it’s been very emotional, especially these last days,” she said. “You’re there like jelly. It was such a long and such an intense journey.” Emotions ran especially high that day because some crew members had relatives who had been disappeared. Cruz’s own great-grandfather was taken away and killed, though her grandmother spoke of it only near the end of her life, because the topic of off-battlefield roundups and political cleansings was taboo during Franco’s dictatorship.
“Behind the lines during the Spanish Civil War,” the historian Paul Preston explains in his landmark book, “The Spanish Holocaust,” “nearly 200,000 men and women were murdered extrajudicially or executed after flimsy legal process.” Though these killings were committed both by the Nationalists (who sparked the war with a failed military coup) and by the Republicans (who defended Spain’s democratically elected government), they were first planned and implemented by the Nationalists, who committed many more of them, believing that they needed to terrorize the urban working classes and peasantry in order to “purify” the country and root out any possible resistance. Indeed, even after Franco and the Nationalists won the war — with help from fascist allies Benito Mussolini and Adolf Hitler — the roundups and show trials of their opponents continued. Many victims were executed after “trials” that lasted a few minutes. The bodies were often concealed in mass graves.
As the cameraman Joaquín Manchado prepared to shoot the actors in the pit, the long arm of a Scorpio 45-foot crane swooped over the scene. A spot monitor stood a ways off, near the tall grass and corn poppies. Almodóvar sat there on a wooden box to direct the shot. Over and over, the camera dived over the grave. At last, Almodóvar got a take he liked. But a crew member thought he saw something on the monitor, a shimmering line of gold. Calvo examined the pit: The extras had lain so still for so long that a spider had begun to spin a web above their bodies. One of its delicate threads had caught the light.
“Go figure,” Almodóvar said. “Well, we’ll do one more.”
In 2007, when Spain was led by the Socialist prime minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, a law was passed that established some government subsidies for volunteer-initiated exhumations of mass graves. But the state failed to assume responsibility for exhuming the graves as stipulated by international law. A year later, the Spanish investigative magistrate Baltasar Garzón tried to compel a reckoning with Spain’s history by opening an investigation into the crimes against humanity committed by Franco’s regime, both during and after the Civil War. But Garzón was blocked by prosecutors who objected that his investigation violated an amnesty law that Spain passed in 1977, two years after Franco’s death.
It was around this time that Almodóvar conceived “Parallel Mothers.” “I felt somehow morally obligated to treat it in one of my movies,” he said. “Because of simple empathy with the families of the victims, and because I also believe that this issue must be dealt with to finish once and for all with the Civil War. Because this is a debt that Spanish society has, and until that debt is paid, until these dead are honored, Spain’s war continues there.”
I was astonished that he touched the topic. In the 1980s and 1990s, Almodóvar was best known for his subversive use of comedy. He took characters normally portrayed in thick stereotype — prostitutes, gay men, addicts, housewives, trans women — and made viewers care about their happiness. In Italy, he was amused to find his films advertised with the tag line “The scandal continues” because he never deliberately tried to shock anyone. “I wasn’t thinking about breaking anything but rather about expressing myself naturally,” he explained. “When I use elements from the L.G.B.T.Q.+ collective, I don’t show the problem of being homosexual or transsexual. No, no, the problem doesn’t exist. The character is. That is, he exists in life and he exists in the story.” “Law of Desire” (1987), for example, includes tender scenes of a family unit composed of a gay filmmaker, his trans sister and a child abandoned by the sister’s ex-girlfriend — at a time when gay couples in Spain could not legally adopt children.
“It’s like an idealized world,” I said to him.
He tilted his head and corrected me: “Normalized, let’s say.”
Almodóvar ignored Franco’s dictatorship in a similar way. During the 1980s, he proudly declared, his films did not contain “even the shadow of a memory of Franco.” “I treat Franco as if he never existed,” he told me, “because that was my revenge in that moment as a young Spanish citizen.” This rejection of the past was typical of the art produced in Madrid during the decade after Franco’s death, when a whole generation of young Spaniards tasted freedom for the first time. The experience produced a kind of social delirium akin to the Roaring ’20s in the United States but with drugs, sex and punk rock in place of booze, dancing and jazz. “It was an absolutely hedonistic movement,” Almodóvar told me. In Madrid the scene was known as “La Movida” (roughly, “the Happening”), and Almodóvar’s early movies captured its zeitgeist like no others.
But the amnesia of La Movida inadvertently abetted the agenda of Franco’s supporters. Like other dictatorships, Franco’s regime kept its hold on power through the intimidation, arrest and torture of its political adversaries. While he ruled Spain, the country had only one legal political party: a union of monarchists, fascists and ultra-Catholics known as the Falange. Franco planned to have his dictatorship followed by a monarchy — he designated the grandson of Spain’s last reigning king as his successor. But after King Juan Carlos was crowned, he unexpectedly spearheaded Spain’s transformation into a constitutional monarchy with a democratically elected Parliament. The 1977 amnesty law released Franco’s opponents from prison, but it also pardoned all political crimes committed during his rule. The law was a central element in what became known as “the pact of forgetting,” a trade-off that many Spaniards believed was necessary for the Falangists to cede control. “It let us be in a democracy,” Almodóvar said. “I am the proof that that democracy was real. That’s to say, I couldn’t have made any of the movies that I’ve made if I weren’t a democracy.”
The pact later was seen as a model for Latin American countries, like Chile and Argentina, that also sought a nonviolent transition out of dictatorship. But while some Latin American countries eventually rolled back their amnesty laws to allow for the prosecution of crimes against humanity, Spain’s amnesty has remained in place. This has created an odd distortion among many young Spaniards: They can feel certain that Latin American dictatorships like the one in Argentina, which lasted seven years and disappeared as many as 30,000 people, were worse than their own country’s civil war and dictatorship, which lasted 39 years and, according to Preston, led to the execution of some 200,000 civilians.
“It’s an amnesia that has been planned,” said Pacheco, who exhumed about 45 mass graves during the nine years he worked for the Association for the Recovery of Historical Memory. “The schools, the education of Spain, took charge of seeing that we would grow up with that lack of information,” he said. “They created citizens ignorant of their own history.”
Smit herself paid little attention to the mass graves before she read Almodóvar’s screenplay for “Parallel Mothers.” Her history classes skimmed over the Civil War, skirting its darkest details. “I think it’s brave,” she said, “that he makes himself responsible for seeing that other generations, for example my own, know about the injustices that have been committed.”
Her character doesn’t feel the same. Near the climax of “Parallel Mothers,” Ana accuses Janis of being obsessed with opening the grave where Falangists buried her great-grandfather. “You have to look at the future,” Ana scolds, “otherwise you’ll just open old wounds.” Furious, Janis turns on Ana for the first time, tearing into the younger woman for knowing so little about Spain’s true history. When I saw it, the scene sent volts through my spine; it was an ideological 180.
“This is the opposite of ‘even a shadow of a memory of Franco,’” I observed to Almodóvar.
“Yes, it’s the opposite,” he agreed. But denying Franco’s memory in the 1980s, he clarified, was never the same as forgetting what happened under Franco.
“I thought that was impossible in Spain because we all remembered what the dictatorship had been,” Almodóvar said. “We remembered and so that cured us in the face of the fundamentalism of an extreme right. But to my surprise, that conscience doesn’t exist in the youth, and I think they don’t take seriously enough the appearance of a party like Vox in Spain.” He was referring to Spain’s far-right party, which in 2019 gained seats in the country’s national Parliament for the first time: placing one of its members in the senate and winning 52 spots in the lower chamber.
Parliament is now considering expanding on the 2007 law to force Spain to track down and open its mass graves. This new bill, the Law of Democratic Memory, would also condemn the military coup of 1936 and Franco’s dictatorship for the first time. But members of Vox and of the conservative People’s Party have sworn to vote against the legislation, and some of their leaders continue to deny that the Civil War was caused by the military’s attempted overthrow of a legitimate democratic government.
This October, at the closing night for the New York Film Festival, I watched hundreds of people stand to applaud “Parallel Mothers” after two screenings in Alice Tully Hall. The audience that cheered after the 9 o’clock screening tilted younger and louder than the one that clapped after the 6 o’clock show. “We love you, Pedro!” a few shouted up to him in Spanish. “Gracias!” he called back from the balcony, where he stood in a purple suit and pink turtleneck to receive the acclaim. Afterward he went onstage with Cruz and Smit for a live interview. While the actresses wilted with jet lag — it was nearing 6 in the morning in Spain — Almodóvar thrummed with energy. For him, the rush of adrenaline had begun the night before, on the plane from Madrid, and it carried him through a Friday packed with public appearances.
Two days later when I met him at the Whitby Hotel for our final conversation, Almodóvar’s exuberance had flattened. I was not surprised. In press accounts, Almodóvar is often portrayed as a flamboyant showman. “The stage is not only a place that doesn’t scare me, it also excites me,” he explained. The stimulating effect is heightened when Almodóvar is worn out by constantly traveling and shaking hands with new people, as a director must to promote a film through the festival season. Then when he’s thrown before an audience, his filters fall off. “In those moments, I’m capable of saying onstage things I’ve never said before,” he said. “You’re at the end of your stamina. It’s a kind of loss of control over yourself, but one in which what comes out is very authentic and at the same time very shameless.”
But offstage, casual conversation with strangers exhausts him. He has a hard time, he confesses, hurting people he cares about. He’s not good at conflict, not good at saying “no.” With his own emotions, he can be deeply private. That weekend in New York, he and Cruz sat down together to watch a video that the Spanish magazine Fotogramas posted to celebrate their long history of collaboration. It includes footage from “Live Flesh” (1997), in which Cruz appears with Pilar Bardem, who would later become her mother-in-law and who died this summer. “I couldn’t help it, and I started weeping,” Cruz told me. “Well, I didn’t look at him, but from here, from the corner of my eye, I know perfectly what he did. He acts as if he doesn’t notice that I’m crying.” Yet he quietly got up and left the room, so she could have a moment alone. “He has a touch of shyness,” Cruz observed. “That’s from vulnerability, which I find very lovely and very important to keep growing as an artist and as a human being.”
Indeed the emotional power of Almodóvar’s films, and perhaps the secret to his astonishing evolution, lies in his capacity for empathy. To find his American equivalent, you would have to imagine that the director of “American Pie” went on to make “American Beauty” and then a film that touches the ugliest aspects of the American Civil War. “He embraced the ridiculous to make an unprecedented weapon against abuse,” the Argentine director Lucrecia Martel observed in 2019, when the Venice film festival awarded Almodóvar the Golden Lion for lifetime achievement. In his last three features, he has turned down the dial on the ridiculous. This makes it easier to spot how his empathic portrayal of characters intersects with a complicated sense of justice.
“When people focus on the outrageous,” Carla Marcantonio, a professor of film studies and Almodóvar’s longtime English translator, told me over Zoom, “they miss how invested he is in these ethical dilemmas that have to do with our relationships to each other.” She pointed to Almodóvar’s 2002 film “Talk to Her” as a prime example. Like many of Almodóvar’s strangest plots, the story was partly inspired by a news report, this one about a man who raped a corpse in a morgue, only to see the body wake up. The rapist went to jail, Almodóvar recalled, but the victim’s family visited him there, grateful that his crime brought their daughter back to life. In Almodóvar’s version, the rape occurs later in the film, after he has generated sympathy for the criminal. As a result, the movie left me with a brew of feelings: pity for the man, horror at his crime, wonder at seeing the woman awaken. In our talks, Almodóvar referred to the man as a psychopath, but the movie presents him without judgment. “His characters are always endowed with a sense of humanity,” Marcantonio noted. “The only figures who don’t get that are the old-school patriarchs.”
The need to make characters sympathetic is one of the reasons Almodóvar abandoned “Parallel Mothers” for so long. In his early drafts, Ana lived with a member of the ultraconservative Catholic group Opus Dei. “It gave the story a Manichaean air that I didn’t like, because obviously they were the bad guys,” he said. He wanted viewers to empathize with the women trying to find the disappeared, but he didn’t want to stir up hate. His goal was to make a movie about the mass graves “in a serene and human way, that is, without it having any sensation of revenge on my part, as a person on the left.” In lockdown, he solved the problem by making Ana’s mother an actress who chooses her career over her daughter. This was a character whose flaws and pains he understood, just as he empathized with Janis’s difficulties achieving honesty in her own life even as she seeks the truth about her great-grandfather’s death.
On location for “Parallel Mothers,” I asked the cinematographer José Luis Alcaine, who has worked with Almodóvar on several of his greatest movies, how it is that Almodóvar is making the best films of his life at an age when so many artists begin to decline. Alcaine, who is 82 and has shot nearly 200 films, smiled at me with patience. “We can constantly renew ourselves and give another leap and go even farther,” he said. It’s not a question of age, he explained, but of temperament, of being the kind of person who keeps pushing, keeps trying new approaches.
It’s true, Almodóvar told me, that whenever he finishes a movie, he tries to make the next one different. “I would say, even though it may sound exaggerated, I need to feel as if my life is going into it,” he explained. “Or rather, that I couldn’t live if I didn’t make that movie. So I make it hard for myself, because, sure, every time, naturally, you’re less fertile. You come up with fewer stories as time goes on. You have fewer ideas. So I’m very afraid of when the moment comes when I don’t have any new ideas.”
But that point remains far off. Right before our interview, Pedro and Agustín were in a meeting about his next project. Actually, he was working on three projects: a script that he wasn’t ready to talk about, a production based on Lucia Berlin’s stories “A Manual for Cleaning Women” (which would be his first English-language feature) and a short Western that he hoped to shoot in the new year. Even on tour, Almodóvar was writing scripts. “It’s like love,” he said. “If you break up with someone, the best way to recover is another, new love.”
But shooting is the part that he loves most, and the happiest I saw him was on the last day of making “Parallel Mothers.” Because he and Agustín control the production of his films, Pedro is one of the few major directors who never has to shoot his scenes out of order. So when the extras climbed out the grave at the end of the last shot, the mood on location immediately turned both triumphant and sad. They had finished making a film in the middle of a pandemic. But now, between the precautions against Covid and the demands of their next projects, they might not see each other again for years. People cried. They took selfies. They cracked jokes. They threw caution to the wind and hugged. Because of Covid, there would be no wrap party. What they got was this loving farewell in the middle of some fields.
Cruz wandered from friend to friend with wet eyes. She looked shaken, fragile, exhausted. “I feel ‘like a cow without a bell,’” she told Almodóvar, quoting one of his best-known movie lines. He himself looked radiant. He gamely stood for selfie after selfie, neither seeking nor rejecting the adoration. “There are shoots that are hell,” he told me. “This has been a blessed shoot.”
A moment later, he spotted Auria leaving with her father. As he walked over to them, his mind shifted instinctively to her experience of the celebration. “Luna doesn’t want to know anything about it,” he said, looking at the girl who sat down on the dirt road in her denim romper, a sippy cup in her hand and a serious look on her face. “The shoot is finished, and she’s over it.” He looked at her father and offered his hand, “Muchas gracias.”
Rafael Pavarotti is a photographer from Brazil currently based in London. He attributes the vibrant color palette of his photographs to the everyday sights of his childhood in the Amazon rainforest.