THE STORY – Two women coincide in a hospital room where they are going to give birth. Both are single and became pregnant by accident. Janis, middle-aged, doesn’t regret it and is exultant. The other, Ana, an adolescent, is scared, repentant, and traumatized. Janis tries to encourage her while they move like sleepwalkers along the hospital corridors. The few words they exchange in those hours will create a very close link between the two, which by chance develops and becomes complicated, changing their lives in a decisive way.
THE CAST – Penélope Cruz, Milena Smit, Israel Elejalde, Aitana Sánchez-Gijón, Julieta Serrano & Rossy De Palma
THE TEAM – Pedro Almodóvar (Director/Writer)
THE RUNNING TIME – 123 Minutes
By Matt Neglia
Pedro Almodóvar’s twenty-second feature-length film, “Parallel Mothers,” is a film that feels like both a callback to his earlier films and a deeper exploration of a truth which he’s searching for as he progresses both in his career and with age. While his last feature, “Pain And Glory,” was a semi-autobiographical look at himself during this stage of his life, his latest story turns its eye towards his country’s past and present through a particular lens of motherhood, broken families, and hidden secrets which one way or another, eventually become exposed.
During the winter of 2016 in Madrid, the nearly 40-year-old magazine photographer Janis (Penélope Cruz) meets Arturo (Israel Elejalde), a handsome forensic archaeologist who is heading the unearthing of an unmarked grave which contains the remains of her great-grandfather and thousands of other citizens who were brutally murdered during the Spanish Civil War at the hands of dictator Francisco Franco. The two share a passionate affair with one another, and Janis becomes pregnant. On the same maternity ward as Janis is Ana (Milena Smit), a younger woman whose pregnancy came due to much more horrible reasons. The two have their children simultaneously and start to become close with one another through their newfound shared experience as mothers. However, Arturo begins to suspect that his daughter Cecilia is not his daughter at all, causing Janis to fall into a neurotic swirl of confusion and doubt.
“I’ve lost all notion of time,” says Janis at one point to Arturo as Pedro Almodóvar jumps one of the very few times between the past and present with his primary storyline. While there are no flashbacks to the historical past Janis’s grandparents occupy, their story’s impact on the main plot is ambitious for Almodóvar to tackle. Yes, there are parallels drawn between Janis and Ana, but the underlying relationship is between Spain’s bloody past and its present; How families were torn apart and never brought back together again, how shared experiences of anger, love, and sorrow are universal feelings which are experienced throughout time. The connections can feel a bit too fleeting at times early on in the film’s story, but by the time Almodóvar reaches his latest film’s finale, the message is loud and clear with a devastatingly mournful final shot that rings true with anger and insightfulness.
Almodóvar’s usual vividly striking images are on full display as his production and costume designers fill the frame with highly saturated primary colors. Such bright images are later turned down as the film’s more serious tone takes over, but Almodóvar’s story never teeters into comedic territory. This is a grounded drama with no exaggerated elements to speak of, helped by a beautifully traditional and moving score from Alberto Iglesias and two grounded performances from Penélope Cruz and Milena Smit.
In her eighth collaboration with Almodóvar, Penélope Cruz is continuing to find new layers to her extraordinary talents as she takes the audience on an emotional journey through Janis’s first-time experience with motherhood. She’s expectedly terrific but more surprisingly was the equally fantastic performance from Smit, whose Ana is given the film’s most emotionally charged scene towards the end when an unexpected truth bomb is dropped on her by Janis after the two have come to grow intimate with one another. Her magnetic presence on screen is skillfully captured by Almodóvar’s many extreme close-ups allowing the audience to stare deeply into the soul of her character and experience every emotion she’s feeling. Each shocking reveal of the screenplay feels earned due to the work from the actors, even if the screenplay does start to lose steam after the final climactic reveal before Almodóvar brings us to the film’s closing scene.
The film’s coda comes from Uruguayan journalist, Eduardo Galeano, saying, “No history is mute, no matter how much they burn it, no matter how much they break it, no matter how much they lie about it, human history refuses to shut its mouth.” In Pedro Almodóvar’s “Parallel Mothers,” the truths pertaining to familial history, spanning generations, both past, and present are hidden. Drawing such a connection between the massive, concealed, horrific past of his country and the contemporary, intimate story of his characters living in the present might be a bit of a stretch as the film does not make these parallels known until much later in the narrative. Still, the aim and importance of Almodóvar’s intent is admirable. At 72 years old, we should all be appreciative to have such a gifted and unique storyteller continuing his quest for honesty and culpability during a time where there barely is any.
THE FINAL SCORE
THE GOOD – Two emotionally grounded and outstanding performances from Penélope Cruz and Milena Smit. Almodóvar’s story sneaks up on you, delivering a devastating gut-punch in the film’s climax.
THE BAD – The screenplay’s attempts to draw parallels between the past and present can often feel too fleeting early on and a bit of a reach at other times.