PARALLEL MOTHERS is a striking and messy portrayal of motherhood
Families are an ocean of complications and contradictions. And just as we carry the love and stories of those who came before us, we also carry the heartache and baggage that shapes our lives. Pedro Almodóvar’s latest film, Parallel mothers, is a moving and tense portrait of motherhood and family, both blood and found. Written and directed by Almodóvar, the film follows two women on their way to motherhood, whose lives become entangled due to a messy and consequential turn of events.
Janis and Ana, roommates in a hospital in Madrid, prepare to give birth. Both single, their pregnancies unplanned. The prospect of becoming a mom turns Janis on. It is an experience at the antipodes for Ana, who is not yet 18 years old and lives with her former actress mother following the said pregnancy. Her pregnancy is much more traumatic.
Penélope Cruz anchors the film in the role of Janis, a nearly 40-year-old photographer who sees this pregnancy as her desire to become a mother. Janis is a rich and complex character, and Cruz makes her feel just as multidimensional as Janis learns a disturbing truth that will change the course of her life and that of Ana. Newcomer Milena Smit is incredibly expressive as Ana, conveying so many emotions with just a look. Janis is clearly in the lead, but it’s the on-screen dynamics of Cruz and Smit that makes everything work.
Adding a rich layer to the film is a major subplot focusing on the still open wounds of the Spanish Civil War some 80 years later. The fascists murdered Janis’ great-grandfather, along with nearly a dozen others. She hires archaeologist Arturo (Israel Elejalde) to conduct an excavation of the known location of a mass grave on the outskirts of her hometown. Janis’ promise to her grandmother that she would find justice for her great-grandfather and give him a decent funeral gives the film a deep line.
For Janis, it was the source of a generational trauma, an experience that deeply shaped her family, even almost a century later. Ana and Janis are a generation apart, and the way the Spanish Civil War shaped each of them varies widely. Janis, raised by the grandmother whose father was torn from her family by the phalanxes, understands the pain perfectly, bubbling just below the surface. However, coming from a young generation and a family whose family does not endure the same trauma, Ana is only introduced to this particular experience by Janis.
It’s a well-rounded and moving subplot, which never feels heavy. Almodóvar’s decision to weave a subplot bringing the pain of the Spanish Civil War era into the 21st century is an overtly political decision by Almodóvar. Certainly during the resurgence of far-right ideology in the world. But the rise in power is spectacular, especially during the last particularly moving minutes.
While Janis spends much of the film trying to end her family, especially the late grandmother who raised her, Ana’s family is still plagued with open, festering wounds. Most notably with her mother, Teresa (Aitana Sánchez-Gijón), who divorced her father to become an actress when she was young. Finally reaching her professional tempo, Teresa has her own complicated relationship with motherhood and her career, and how society’s expectations of motherhood shattered her relationship with Ana as she continued her career.
Parallel mothers reunites Almodóvar with several of his frequent collaborators, including his brother, Agustín Almodóvar, and Esther Garcia, who produced the film. (And, of course, Cruz, who has now appeared in eight of Almodóvar’s films.) Alberto Iglesias’ magnificent melancholy score adds nostalgia and tension as Janis struggles with a devastating truth.
Parts of the plot seem familiar. In particular, the main plot point that the drama points to throughout the second act. But Almodóvar doesn’t necessarily try to shock us with the expected turn. Instead, the film focuses more on the very human response to unexpected and changing situations. Messy, totally flawed, and heartbreaking, even when a particular decision is downright frustrating. Parallel mothers is a painful, often contained melodrama. The film is all about flawed people and the devastating decisions they make. But it’s also cathartic and at least somewhat optimistic. And, remarkably human. It’s a big turning point for Almodóvar, tackling a dark period in recent Spanish history woven through this story of new life and heartbreak. While not all aspects fit together perfectly, it’s a moving and engaging story that’s worth every big attempt.
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