The World of Art Never Forgets About History: How Almodóvar Reopens Old Wounds

Often the world of art mirrors reality in the moment of creation. It is no different with the latest film by Pedro Almodóvar “Parallel Mothers” with the main role played by Penelope Cruz. The director’s most political picture in his career presents the current problem of Spain with “historical memory” and discordance around the exhumation of mass graves with civilian victims of the Spanish Civil War 1936-1939 and later repression during the regime of General Francisco Franco.

The main character of the film is Janis, a photographer, a mother, but what is most important, the great-granddaughter of a civil victim of General Franco’s regime. She represents the generation of people born in democratic times, who are struggling to unearth the mass graves with the remains of their relatives. After the events of the Civil War and the win of a dictator, nobody ventured to search for the truth about the missing family. The fear of repression from the side of the system and being denounced by the community they lived in, contributed to the position of muteness. Similarly, after the death of General Francisco Franco, Spanish political parties implemented the Pact of Forgetting. Nobody wanted to reopen the old wounds. They preferred to focus on a better future, the world of democracy without unnecessarily dwelling on the cruel past.

More than 80 years were needed and the new generation was determined to fight for the respect of their grandparents or great-grandparents. Their aim was to bring their memory back.

The Civil War from 1936-1939 was a result of a strong polarization in Spanish society. After the fall of the dictatorship in April 1931 democracy was established. Republicans together with socialists implemented many reforms that would modernize the country. There was a separation of the country from the church, agriculture reform, and depoliticization of the army. Not everybody was pleased with the new political reality in Spain.  The elections of November 1933 gave power to the right-wing coalition that cancelled all previous reforms. Additionally, the para-fascist political party CEDA entered the government. All these events were a spark for the start of the riots conducted by socialists. Even though they were put down by General Franco and his African Army, in the new elections in 1936, Republican- Left Coalition – People’s Front won. The right-wing politicians feared the activities of the left-wing, which was seen as Bolshevism. The street clashes between the fascist movement “Falange” and left-wing activists were escalating. The death of José Calvo Sotelo, caused by the Republican Guard, was an excuse for the generals under Emilio Mola to attempt a coup that started in Morocco and spread to continental Spain. General Francisco Franco during his regime used brutal repression, “white terror” in the areas of the rebellion. According to the aforementioned, all people against his policy, that is, believers in the Second Republic, called “Rojos”, which means “red”, were put on special lists. They were the ones that could only speak “wrongly”, read uninfluenced newspapers, take part in assemblies, wouldn’t be enthusiastic enough about national matters, or were suspected to think “differently”.

Even after the end of the Civil War a large number of political enemies were kept in prisons. These places used to be called “cemeteries for the living”. The reason for that is the Law of Political Responsibility implemented on 9th February 1939. Those who contributed to the violation of the Spanish social order from 1 October 1934 or who opposed the national movement from 18 July 1936 could have been sentenced. It was a law that functioned retroactively. Some historians say that the regime of General Franco was much more brutal than the regimes of other European dictators towards their own. In Portugal during the regime of Salazar, there were about 18,000 political prisoners. In Italy, Mussolini put about 4000 people in prison. Hitler sent 25,000 Germans to concentration camps. The number of Spanish political prisoners is incomparable. Franco arrested 270,000 people which at that time was 1% of the Spanish population. As a result, prisons were overloaded. To find a place to keep them, schools, plants, and monasteries were transformed. In some prisons, the average weight of the man was 65 kilos.

Francoist authorities didn’t have enough evidence to charge arrests as no crime was committed. However, they could turn to the people of the far right, members of the Falangist and Fascist militias in the same village as the prison, and inform them that the release of “rojos” from the prison was being planned on a particular date and hour. Later, an activist of the right would wait outside the prison to take the people. Packed in trucks, they would disappear without a word. They were shot in the back of their heads, occiput, and buried in a trench, usually no more than 40 killomaters away. Sometimes, Falangists would come at night directly to their houses to do the same thing. The practice was called “pedagogía de la sangre”, meaning, learning with blood. It was a method to raise fear in communities. Families would never know the truth. They would be deluded that the prisoners had run away from prison.

The rebels weren’t those who suffered the most. After them, it was the families that they had left behind. The wives, the mothers, the sisters. They would wear only black and become silent, looking like flowers that were past the stage of  blooming. Sometimes they were defiled in their community. The local community shaved their heads, made them drink castor oil, and led them through the village’s main street with music. The relatives couldn’t peacefully honour the murdered man by laying flowers or pray where he was buried. Stones were thrown at them. After the incidents it was noted that wives didn’t want to speak about the events and some of them would cry eternally. The despairing wives were all alone in fighting their silent battles because letting it out was not an option.

In 2008 The Sociological Research Centre (Centro de Investigaciones Sociológicas) published the outcome of the survey that they carried out in Spanish society. According to it, 44% of respondents answered that the events of the Civil War were hardly talked about in their houses and 31% didn’t talk at all about it. The silence caused by the terror of fear has obliterated the traces of the crime.The direct witnesses passed away. The recollection of crimes only remains in the memory of people that have been told about the tragic events.

At the beginning of the 2000s, some private initiatives of exhumations of graves took place. However, they were quite expensive, and not everyone could afford them. Nevertheless, a domino effect was caused. It ignited an interest in other people to start searching for information about their distant relatives. In 2007, The Historical Memory Law was passed. The State took responsibility for the localization, identification, and exhumation of mass graves from the Civil War. Unfortunately, it is not fully effective as the granting of funds depends on the government’s decision. Usually, whenever the left-wing party is in the government, they support this national matter. The right-wing parties oppose unearthing the republican victims claiming that scabs shouldn’t be picked. This is mainly because of the fact that a number of right-wing political parties have been founded by former ministers in the cabinet of General Franco. Many people receive bigger support from non-governmental organizations such as Asociación para la Recuperación de la Memoria Histórica (ARMH). They are composed of volunteered anthropologists, archaeologists, historians, sociologists, and relatives of the victims. This was the case with Janis in Almodóvar’s film. She didn’t get the money from the government for the exhumation of the unidentified grave of her great-grandfather, but with the help of Arturo, who is an expert in that field, she manages to do that.

On the website of the Ministry of Justice of Spain, there is a special interactive map of all Spanish territories with the thicket of points that mean the localized graves, not cemeteries, with remains of victims of Civil Wars or later repression. What differentiates the Spanish genocide from others like in Bosna and Herzegovina or Polish Katyn, is the time that passed from the event. It’s been more than 80 years. Some of the bone materials in the remains are too weak. Some of the victims were too young to have children and pass their DNA to succeeding generation.

Although the identification of relatives can be troubling and distressing, families don’t give up on taking care of bringing back the truth and remembrance of them. 

In the last scene of “Parallel Mothers”, the director leaves us with the quote of the Uruguayan journalist and author, Eduardo Galeano: “There is no silent history. However much they burn it, however much they smash it, however much they lie about it, human history refuses to shut up.” And so it is today. After 80 years of salience, the remembrance of the victims comes back to speak loudly.

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2 thoughts on “The World of Art Never Forgets About History: How Almodóvar Reopens Old Wounds

  1. andrea buratti

    Thank you for having introduced this topic exactely in the days when Spain is debating the act on democratic memory, aimed at becoming the cornerstone in this field. The movie – which is deeply entrenched with Spanish history, and for this reason has not been really understood by many out of Spain – discusses the problem of reparative justice also through the metaphor of the child, that is illegaly kept by the main character, and must, instead, be restitued to the original, legitimate, mother, no matter how dramatic this disclosure of truth and this separation would be: there is no safety without truth, only truth and restitution can pave the way to an actual pacification with ourselves. In the movie, the metaphorical narrative goes on while the historical narrative procedes, and they mutually enrich one the other. The exchange of children in the hospital is chosen as a metaphor because of the dramatic evidences that demonstrate how Franco’s regime operated to take children away from their families to consign them to families linked to the establishment. A powerful metaphor for a higly debated issue. The Spanish approach to reparative justice is consistent with what happened in South Africa with the establishment by Nelson Mandela’s party of the Commission for truth and reconciliation, the very seminal experience of reparative justice. But I want to stress the deep roots reparative justice has with Greek tragedies. Aechylous’ Oresteia, in particular, was the first attempt to open a public debate on that, a debate that seems still ongoing…

    1. Aleksandra Zyla

      Thank you very much for this comment. I didn’t know about the child metaphor. It’s very interesting how cleverly Almodóvar used the comparison. Now, in my eyes, the film gained even deeper importance as an image that visualises the problem of “historical memory” and reparative justice. Not only was the thread of the film dedicated to the Spanish national matter, but rather the whole film was created to emphasise the current situation

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