Review: Pedro Almodóvar Explores History, Family Bonds and More in Parallel Mothers

Although writer/director Pedro Almodóvar has had many creative partnerships over the year (mostly notably with the likes of Carmen Maura and Antonio Banderas), his now eight pairings with Penelope Cruz have borne the greatest emotional fruit, as well as shown the greatest range in both artists’ capacity to tell very specific, yet quite universal stories. Their previous works have included such notable titles as Live Flesh, All About My Mother, Volver, Julieta, and Pain and Glory. Over the 25 years they have been working together, they have produced works that have been varying degrees of funny, as well as others that have pushed the limits of high drama to stunning new heights. Their latest pairing, Parallel Mothers, falls decidedly on the dramatic side, bordering on the melodramatic (which is in no way a criticism). In fact, Almodóvar is skilled at taking what could easily be a soap opera-like setup and turning it into something believable and emotionally volatile.

Parallel Mothers
Image courtesy of Sony Classics.

Cruz plays Janis, a successful magazine photographer who gets pregnant by Arturo (Israel Elejalde), a forensic anthropologist she’s shooting for a feature piece. The two become close as he agrees to investigate her family history that may involve a dark and ugly part of Spain’s past that many would rather not have dug up (literally or figuratively). Janis gives birth on the same day, at the same hospital as the teenage Ana (Milena Smit), who lives with her actor mother (Aitana Sánchez-Gijón), whose career is unexpectedly taking off right when she would be of great help to Ana. Both pregnant unexpectedly, Janis and Ana become friendly in the hospital and exchange numbers almost on a whim. They talk about their levels of enthusiasm about becoming mothers, and it’s clear they are in different places in their lives. Janis is excited about the prospect, while Ana is terrified, with Janis comforting and encouraging her new friend.

To be clear, Parallel Mothers has two narrative threads running through it. One involves the intersecting lives of these two women, and the truly bizarre course their lives and the lives of their children take, which leads to deception, loss, trauma, and a seemingly unforgivable deception. The other story is about Janis’ familial investigation that involves getting permission from the government to exhume a mass grave in her hometown in order to identify the bodies. The storyline involves Fascists during the Spanish Civil War, but it also serves to keep Arturo (who is married) in Janis’ life, even though she is committed to raising her child alone. This element of the film feels like backdrop, and at times, we even forget that it’s an ongoing subplot. But as the story of Janis and Ana begins to reveal its true nature and resolve itself as much as it can, the historical story comes to the foreground in spectacular fashion.

The two threads do parallel each other to a degree. There are mothers and ghosts of mothers and surrogate mothers and absentee mothers (Almodóvar regular Rossy de Palma plays Janis’ editor and best friend) throughout the movie, but somehow the story always comes back to these two very different women with an irrepressible bond. The performances by Cruz and Smith are exceptional (Cruz won the Best Actress prize at the Venice Film Festival), and it’s clear that Cruz is only getting better as an actor. Her character makes tough and occasionally appalling decisions that she still manages to sell as a choices that had to be made for her character to maintain her sanity. It’s a true high-wire act, and Cruz makes it look easy and natural. Like most Almodóvar works, the production design and costumes are as crucial as the performances, but in Parallel Mothers, story is king this time around, and there is plenty of that to choose from.

The film is now playing in theaters, including the Landmark Century Centre Cinema.

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Steve Prokopy

Steve Prokopy is chief film critic for the Chicago-based arts outlet
Third Coast Review. For nearly 20 years, he was the Chicago editor for
Ain’t It Cool News, where he contributed film reviews and
filmmaker/actor interviews under the name “Capone.” Currently, he’s a
frequent contributor at /Film (SlashFilm.com) and Backstory Magazine.
He is also the public relations director for Chicago's independently
owned Music Box Theatre, and holds the position of Vice President for
the Chicago Film Critics Association. In addition, he is a programmer
for the Chicago Critics Film Festival, which has been one of the
city's most anticipated festivals since 2013.