In his latest film, released in the UK this week, Pedro Almodóvar breaks new ground in a career that began as Spain started to transition to democracy in the late 1970s. Until now, the great director’s work has virtually ignored the dark decades of dictatorship under General Francisco Franco. “It was my way of getting revenge on him,” he explained to the Guardian last week. “But it didn’t mean to say I’d forgotten.”
After Franco’s death in 1975, a “pact of forgetting” and an Amnesty Law largely drew a veil over the bloody atrocities of the Spanish civil war and the repressive era of dictatorship, allowing a traumatised population to move on. As the plot of Parallel Mothers reflects, this mood has given way on the left to a determination to bear witness to crimes never recognised or atoned for. The film stars Penelope Cruz as a photographer determined to exhume bodies from a mass grave near her village, where she believes her Republican great-grandfather lies after being summarily executed by fascist forces.
In recent years, such exhumations have been sought and performed throughout Spain, and more than 100,000 bodies are known to still lie in unmarked graves. The Socialist-led government plans to make new funds and resources available for digs, as well as other activities and research related to historical memory. As work progresses, civil war historians have been able to draw on new sources to better understand the horrors of the time and the specific nature of the fascist terror unleashed across the country. Last year, the government moved to outlaw the defence and cultural celebration of the Franco era.
There has, inevitably, been a backlash. Many conservatives argue that the historical memory movement has unnecessarily stirred up division and recrimination. A culture war over the politics of memory is underway. This week, for example, Madrid’s rightwing city council restored the name of a street which memorialises a nationalist ship that shelled civilians in 1937. The rise of the nationalist Vox party has emboldened parts of the right which aim to rehabilitate the Franco era and the nationalist cause in the civil war.
The direction of travel, though, is clear. For some time, plans have been underway for Spain’s first national museum devoted to the civil war, located in the Aragonese battleground town of Teruel. A commission of experts from across the political spectrum is to decide how to tell the story of the conflict, focusing particularly on the suffering of the civilian population. Its architects, led by the former Socialist MP and professor of politics, Javier Paniagua, hope that the £5m project can become a Spanish equivalent to the Verdun memorial or the Imperial War Museum.
This is unlikely to be a museum which will appeal to Vox supporters. But Mr Paniagua said that the aim will be to fairly portray nationalist and republican perspectives, in an effort to enhance understanding of why a national tragedy took place. In an age of polarisation this is surely the right approach, however challenging and ambitious. Collective amnesia was perhaps an understandable option for a generation desperate to embrace a democratic future in the 1970s. But as Mr Almodóvar points out: “Remembering is part of the soul of who we are.” It will be a mighty task, but more than 80 years after the civil war ended, Teruel’s planned museum deserves to succeed.