By Ryan O’Toole
The Best Actress race is the most chaotic category in recent memory. With all nominees being shut out at the BAFTAs and with the presumed frontrunner, Nicole Kidman, losing at SAG to Jessica Chastain, there’s still no clear winner. That being said, Kidman and Chastain appear to be in the lead heading towards Oscar night, with Olivia Colman behind them and Kristen Stewart and Penélope Cruz on the outside looking in. However, if the Oscars were a meritocracy, the entire race would be flipped on its head. Of the five nominees, Penélope Cruz gave the best performance and should win the Oscar.
In “Parallel Mothers,” Penélope Cruz re-teams with her longtime collaborator, Pedro Almodóvar, to craft a nuanced portrait of motherhood and trauma, both personal and national. The film chronicles the life of Janis after she’s given birth to her first child and as she attempts to exhume the mass grave where her great-grandfather’s body was unceremoniously killed and buried during the Spanish Civil War. With “Parallel Mothers,” Almodóvar has crafted two intertwined stories. One is a melodrama about motherhood and all that comes with it, and the other is a political story about the dark history of Spain he wishes to shed a light on. Cruz is deft at both and is able to seamlessly transition between the two, effortlessly stitching the two halves together.
Having worked with Almodóvar over the last three decades, Cruz is no stranger to his specific brand of Sirkian melodramas. She is so within her element here, with Almodóvar having pulled several of her best performances out of her, from “All About My Mother” to “Broken Embraces” and the best performance Cruz has ever given: “Volver.” It’s so refreshing to see an actor do the exact thing they were made to do, like watching Tom Cruise run or Tom Hanks be good at his job. For Cruz, that thing is acting in Almodóvar’s melodramas.
Early on in the film, after Janis has given birth to her first child, Cecelia, and is raising her on her own, she meets with Cecelia’s father, Arturo, who seems uncomfortable. After prying for an explanation, he says that he doesn’t think that the baby is his, a thought that has entered into Janis’ mind, even if she wouldn’t admit that. She shared a hospital room with a pregnant teenager, Ana, played by an excellent Milena Smit, and the hospital could have switched their babies.
The film immediately cuts to weeks later, where we can see that this uncertainty has grown and grown under the surface. We can see that she still loves Cecelia, but this doubt overtakes her, and in a moment of weakness, she orders a DNA test. Again, cut to a few days later, where she is driven slightly manic by the fear that Cecilia is not her own child. She swabs her baby’s mouth as if it were the most heinous act in the world like she’s turned her back on her daughter. And the final act of this miniature Shakespearean play in the middle of “Parallel Mothers“ is her reading the email with the result that she is not the mother. It’s melodrama in the internet age. Cruz has no one in the room to play off of, only a computer screen, something that could fall flat in the hands of another actress. Still, Cruz is able to really make a meal of it, exploding with emotions, matching the brilliant Alberto Iglesias score, and fitting beautifully within the soapy melodrama Almodóvar has created.
From there, the drama builds, with Janis contemplating whether or not to tell Arturo or Ana, which is further complicated when Ana reveals that her daughter died suddenly. Cruz is in the world of secrets and lies, and in every conversation she has, she holds those secrets close to her chest, boiling right beneath the surface. You can see that she wants to explain everything but can’t bring herself to do it. The entire movie rests on Penélope Cruz and her ability to emote exactly what Janis is thinking, which she handles perfectly.
Melodramas often circle around their big scenes — the crying, the yelling, the “Oscar clip scenes” — and “Parallel Mothers” certainly has many of those. Almodóvar and Cruz lean into the emotions and allow the soapiness of the script to show through her performance, particularly in the culmination of all of the secrets, where Janis’s world starts crumbling around her. But Cruz’s true genius — and what makes this one of the year’s best performances—is when the focus is not on her.
Penélope Cruz dominates a close-up in a way that few other actors can. And Almodóvar will often cut to a close-up of Cruz in a conversation when she’s not talking, just holding on to her reaction. And there are many scenes like this. Almodóvar has always been a generous writer, spreading the meaty scenes around his tremendous ensembles. Arturo, Ana, even Ana’s mother, Teresa, played by Aitana Sánchez-Gijón, all have their scenes. And in these moments, you can see Cruz fully locked in, hanging on to every word her scene partner is saying, whether it’s Arturo explaining the bureaucratic process for mass excavation or Ana explaining that her newborn baby has died. Cruz’s sly smile in response to Teresa saying that she’s “apolitical” is simply unreal.
Cruz also nails the small things, like taking Cecelia to daycare for the first time, the pain of leaving her with someone new, and being afraid to give up control. Or there’s a scene where Janis is multitasking on a computer while trying to put a baby to sleep and having small talk with her maid. Even between all of the melodrama, there’s still an actual human underneath it all. Cruz always convinces you that Janis has a life beyond the frame. When every new scene starts, you see all that has changed in the days, weeks, months that we’ve just cut past.
When the melodrama gives way to the larger political tapestry Almodóvar is weaving, Cruz is able to match the tone exactly. She slips out of her personal conflict in order to personify a larger cultural conflict. The scene where she lays into Ana, a person with an affluent background, about her lack of involvement and knowledge on the sins of Spain’s past is incredible, as is every scene where she lays out her familial background, about her mother, grandmother, and great-grandmother before her. They were also single mothers who also went through struggles. It’s moments like these and the film’s final moments where “Parallel Mothers” burst at the seams, and the line between Cruz and Janis blurs.
Penélope Cruz has gotten some decent roles in Hollywood, including winning a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her work in “Vicky Cristina Barcelona.” However, her best roles have always come from Pedro Almodóvar, and “Parallel Mothers” is no different. He is the one person who really knows how to use her. Working with him, she’s operating on another level, and it is a treat to watch. In “Parallel Mothers“, Penélope Cruz gives the best performance of the five nominees and deserves to win the Oscar. Whether or not she will is anybody’s guess.
What do you think of Penélope Cruz’s performance in “Parallel Mothers?” Do you think she should win the Oscar for Best Actress? Who are you predicting to win? Check out the NBP Team’s predictions here and let us know your thoughts in the comments section down below or on our Twitter account.
You can follow Ryan and hear more of his thoughts on the Oscars and Film on Letterboxd at @rtoole