¡Viva! Film Notes – La Maternal

Dr Abigail Loxham, University of Liverpool, explores Pilar Palomero’s La Maternal, screening as part of ¡Viva! Festival 2023 on 14 and 26 Mar.

In 2018, on the red carpet of the Goyas, Spain’s national film awards, prominent women (and some men) from the Spanish film industry carried red fans with the hash tag ‘más mujeres’ written on them in black writing. ‘Más mujeres’, more women in English, was a campaign led by an organisation that works to increase female participation in the film industry in Spain. Of course, lack of female representation in film is not something that is unique to Spain. Nor is it the case that women have not made significant contributions to successful films. Indeed, a research project being carried out by a team led here in the UK is currently working to display just how much female talent has been side-lined or written out of film history. Frequently these are women working below the line rather than in directing jobs, and as a result don’t make history in the same way that men do. Some of this research is being showcased here at the end of the month, with the UK premiere of ¡Vámonos Bárbara! directed by Cecilia Bartolomé in 1978. It’s not the case that women were not making films, but as is frequently the case with women’s cultural production it has not been as visible as that made by their male counterparts.

Things in the Spanish film industry are certainly changing, albeit slowly. The director of this film, Pilar Palomero, achieved considerable success in Spain with her first feature film Las Niñas (2020). She forms part of what, perhaps optimistically, is being viewed as a new generation of female Spanish filmmakers. This year’s Goya awards would appear to support this claim as two of the nominations for best director went to women, including Pilar Palomero, and La Maternal received a nomination for best film. Also nominated was Alcarràs (2022) directed by Carla Simón, whose first film Estiu 1993 (2017) focused on a young girl during the 1990s.

All of these successes increase the visibility of female filmmakers but what stories do they tell and, just because a filmmaker is female does that ensure feminist films? Prominent film schools in both Madrid and Barcelona present opportunities for women to both train and then often teach the cinematic art, and I have been lucky in the five years that I have been introducing films at ¡Viva! to have seen some of these emerging female talents/directors. The cross pollination of film and TV, or film and streaming services, provides other routes for these women to showcase their work in the audiovisual industry, something helped by the fact that is not uncommon now to view TV through a lens of quality that was previously only attributed to film.

Film scholarship has recently identified a cinematic trend that focuses on teenage girls; this has led to claims that girls are ‘hypervisible’, with not always positive connotations -the sexualisation of young women is one unfortunate side-effect of this. This focus on teenage girls in film would appear to be an international trend, with the French film Girlhood (Céline Sciamma, 2014) and British film Rocks (Sarah Gavron, 2019) receiving extensive critical attention that highlighted the age and gender of the protagonists. Teenagers generally are a recent phenomenon, the luxury of the modern world has allowed there to be a space between childhood and adulthood which is often treated as a space for the pursuit of identity, a liminal time in life during which childhood in disappearing but the responsibilities of being an adult are not yet upon us.

As mentioned, Pilar Palomero’s debut also focussed on this age group, through her tale of a group of schoolgirls in the 1990s. This is a decade that was neglected for some time in Spanish film, in favour of the civil war and its aftermath, but has recently become more popular, perhaps as a result of younger filmmakers having a living memory of this period.

La Maternal focuses on young mothers, a group often written off as having somehow limited their potential for a life of success and achievement. When any group of people come under the scrutiny of the camera then the way in which we view them alters, they can be seen as other to us, something to be scrutinised and sometimes, by extension, judged; given the marginalisation of young mothers, then this is clearly a danger that could have befallen this film. However, the director immerses the camera, and by extension us as spectators, into the world of these young girls in funny, endearing, affectionate and occasionally infuriating ways. They are human and they are struggling with motherhood. The protagonist Carla is childlike, looking younger than her fourteen years, and her own relationship with her young mother is more like one of friends, beset by arguments but also exhibiting closeness and understanding.

What really makes this film is the use of non-professional actors and a socio-realist aesthetic in which the understated yet authentic performance of these women shines through. There is a sense of their bonds forming in unexpected circumstances and the support they share is not the only basis of these bonds; in rare moments away from the burden of care, they are allowed to act just like groups of teenage friends would, sharing cheap make-up and teaching one another dance routines. In fact, it is through dance that the protagonist finds her main outlet and this feature of the film is reminiscent of the British Film Fish Tank (Andrea Arnold, 2009) which also focuses on a teenage girl.

Pilar Palomero’s camera respects the space of these young women, not a space that they would necessarily have chosen but a space in which they are able to tell their own stories, to offer one another support, sisterhood and solidarity and the film does all this without falling into sentimentality or proffering judgment on their lives. In La Maternal a focus on youth presents an imagined future, their youth represents potential; they are not yet fully formed subjects, and the film records them as they become adults and try to work out what their lives will be. The films represent a similar moment of potential for women’s films in Spain; new filmmakers, new voices, and new stories that will surely be an important part of this future.