Director Pedro Almodóvar and actor Penélope Cruz are a match made in heaven. The pair have been mainstays of Spanish cinema for decades, and their collaborations stretch back to Live Flesh (1997). Along the way, they’ve given audiences classics like All About My Mother (1999), Volver (2006) and Broken Embraces (2009). The latest Almodóvar film – Parallel Mothers – once more showcases Cruz’s talents in the director’s now-familiar powerful style.
Those familiar with Almodóvar’s work will know that women – mothers in particular – have always been a focus for the director. That remains here (I mean, it’s right there in the title) but he broadens his scope (noting he also wrote the script). The domestic drama is still there, but Almodóvar uses it to explore painful parts of Spain’s history that still have resonance today.
The “mothers” of the title are Janis (Cruz) and Ana (Milena Smit). In many ways, they couldn’t be more different – Janis is a successful photographer nearing 40; Ana is a scared teenager. But they find themselves roommates in the maternity ward of a Madrid hospital. Once their babies are born, they resolve to keep in touch. But caring for a newborn is hard, and the women rather drift apart. Janis has support from her friend Elena (Almodóvar regular Rossy de Palma) and an au pair. But Ana has to deal with her rather distant mother Teresa (Aitana Sánchez-Gijón), a theatre actor. Teresa has been cast in the role of a lifetime, but it will mean going on tour around Spain. Some months later, Janis runs into Ana, who’s now working at a cafe near Janis’s apartment. Tragedy has struck and the women reunite in their grief.
Meanwhile, Janis is facing difficulties with her sometime paramour Arturo (Israel Elejalde). He’s a (married) forensic anthropologist she met on a photo shoot. Janis believes he’s the father of her baby. But Arturo has doubts about paternity – doubts it seems Janis might share – even though she’s not asking him to support the baby. To quell those doubts, Janis orders a DNA testing kit. The results will have devastating consequences. Meanwhile, Arturo is jumping through bureaucratic hoops. He’s promised Janis he will lead the private exhumation of a mass grave from the Spanish Civil War where Janis thinks her late great-grandfather might be buried.
Almodóvar has never been one to shy away from big questions, and Parallel Mothers is no exception. The film explores what it means to be a family. What binds us together – is it just DNA, or is it something greater? The through-line from DNA testing for heredity to DNA testing for forensics is obvious enough, but it reveals some deeper truths (not just for the characters). The historical undertone is ever-present though largely in the background. It only comes to the fore in the last segment of the story. And the film ends with what’s surely one of the most devastating images you’ll see on film this year.
José Luis Alcaine (Almodóvar’s regular cinematographer) brings the story to life with gorgeous images of faces, interiors and landscapes. Dramatic fades to black heighten the drama. Another of the director’s frequent collaborators, composer Alberto Iglesias, adds immensely to the film with a beautiful but unsettling score.
Penélope Cruz (The 355) delivers one of her strongest performances as Janis. Freed from the constraints of Hollywood casting and working in her native language, she shines in a multi-faceted role. The comparatively inexperienced Milena Smit mostly keeps pace with Cruz, though her character is a little under-developed. Israel Elejalde gives a sympathetic reading of Arturo, in keeping with Almodóvar’s non-judgmental style. Rossy de Palma and Aitana Sánchez-Gijón are both excellent in supporting roles.
Parallel Mothers is a film Almodóvar fans will embrace with relish. It delivers everything we’ve come to expect from the director, but the added layers elevate this above a “typical” Almodóvar film (though I query whether any of them can really be called “typical”). For those new to the director, or who were nonplussed by his earlier work, I’d say give this a go – it might give you a new perspective.
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David Edwards is the editor of The Blurb and a contributor on film and television