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Parallel Mothers

Penélope Cruz and Pedro Almodóvar’s latest collaboration is one of their best so far, unearthing a moving must-see about motherhood.
By Sarah Ward
January 27, 2022
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By Sarah Ward
January 27, 2022
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Whatever Pedro Almodóvar and Penélope Cruz happen to be selling — and whenever, and in whichever films — audiences should always be buying. It isn't quite right to liken the acclaimed filmmaker's long-running collaboration with one of his favourite leading ladies to commerce, though, so another comparison fits better: whatever this duo birth into the world, viewers should embrace as a parent does a child. Across four decades now, the Spanish pair has gorgeously and soul-stirringly made cinematic art with the utmost understanding of how to make people feel. They know how people feel, too, and have the combined resumes best exemplified by Live Flesh, All About My Mother, Volver, Broken Embraces, Pain and Glory and now Parallel Mothers to prove it. Their shared filmography also constantly demonstrates another essential insight into human existence: that life is emotion, whether facing its beginning, end or both.

Now helming his 22nd feature, Almodóvar has long filled his works with other recurrent inclusions and fascinations, many of which also burst onto the screen again here. When he initially united with Cruz on 1997's Live Flesh, she gave birth on a bus; in their second pairing, the Oscar-winning All About My Mother, she played a pregnant nun; with their most recent collaboration before this, Pain and Glory, she was mum to the writer/director's fictionalised surrogate — so that she's one of his titular matriarchs now is vintage Almodóvar. He brings back another of his veteran stars in Rossy de Palma (Julieta), paints with the vibrant-toned costume and set design that make his movies such a blissful sight for colour-seeking eyes, and focuses on mothers of all shades navigating life's many difficulties as well. Yes, Parallel Mothers is classic Almodóvar, but nothing about that description ever simply unfurls as expected.

As the movie's moniker indicates, Janis, the almost-40 photographer that Cruz (The 355) inhabits with the quiet force and fragility that's second nature whenever she's directed by Almodóvar, is just one of Parallel Mothers' mums. Teenager Ana (Milena Smit, Cross the Line) is the other and, despite the feature's title, their stories keep converging. The two first meet in a Madrid hospital, where they share a room, give birth simultaneously, chat about how they're each going it alone with no father in the picture and quickly form a bond — as different as they otherwise appear, down to contrasting sources of support (Janis' brightly attired magazine-editor best friend Elena, which is where de Palma pops up, versus Ana's self-obsessed and distant actress mother Teresa, played by Estoy vivo's Aitana Sánchez-Gijón). Janis and Ana descend separately into motherhood afterwards, but twists of fate keep bringing them back together.

Soapiness, aka the kinds of narrative developments characteristic of daytime TV, is another of Almodóvar's touches. But while his career has spanned films light and camp, dark and serious, and almost everything in-between, he inherently recognises that the line between what's dismissed as melodramatic contrivance and what people do truly experience is thinner than a blue slash on a positive pregnancy test. He unravels Parallel Mothers' story with that notion beaming underneath, and while also tackling a real and grim chapter of his country's history that he's never overtly confronted in his work. Before Janis and Ana can meet again and again, their lives and those of their infant daughters' forever intertwined, Janis gets in the family way to anthropologist Arturo (Israel Elejalde, 45 rpm) — who she snaps at a job, then asks to unearth the mass grave in her village that she suspects has housed her great-grandfather's body since he went missing in the Spanish Civil War.

A lesser filmmaker would fail to convincingly stitch together Parallel Mothers' past and present, and wouldn't turn the picture into a missive of hope for the future as well — an ode to the ways in which women have weathered the ills, woes, wars and heartbreaks of oft-absent men, and a musing on how acknowledging that reality is a key step to reshaping it. Almodóvar is an exceptional filmmaker, of course, and so every bold move he makes here excavates multi-layered complexity, emotion and, to borrow his last release's name, pain and glory. His embrace of soap opera-style twists and the lingering shadows of Spain's recent history in tandem is chaotic, but his film never sports that air because it accepts it all as truth. There's no heightened histrionics — just the awareness that life is emotion because it's a state of ongoing trauma, as peppered with snatched moments of happiness and learning to appreciate what you can so that you can keep going on.

Warm and radiant, and as great as she's ever been for Almodóvar or in any feature, the magnificent Cruz internalises this concept — of enduring and persevering, whether in tirelessly striving to finally exhume her family's past, in lucking into becoming a mother, or when faced with a certainty that's the stuff of maternal nightmares — so completely and sensitively that she's sheer on-screen perfection. There's nothing thin about her performance, but you can see right into it, gleaning the whirlwind of complicated factors that push, pull, swirl, sway and motivate Janis' every choice. She's amply matched by Smit, who turns in a far more internalised portrayal, but one that's still a revelatory portrait of resilience and resolve in its own way. That said, Almodóvar may love his strong female leads, but he also adores flaws; in his movies, no one is faultless, and his characters and the performances behind them are all the more powerful for it.

Also potent: Almodóvar's style, rampant as it is, and what it conveys about the tale he's telling. His work is never just about what happens, but how — and with his players, the same rings true in their actions — so all of the colours, deep-focus shots, close-ups of Cruz and Smit's faces, mirrored images featuring the pair and sometimes-sudden edits that bring this picture to fruition are pivotal pieces in Parallel Mothers' puzzle. The mastery of the director's returning technical talents (cinematographer José Luis Alcaine, composer Alberto Iglesias, editor Teresa Font, costumer Paola Torres and production designer Antxón Gómez, all back from Pain and Glory) helps shape the film into a haunted Hitchcockian thriller at times, for example, as well as a clear-eyed look at Spanish history. It's as visually arresting as an Almodóvar movie can be, too, and interweaves its seemingly disparate approaches as commandingly as it does its chalk-and-cheese narrative threads. Sensual and savvy and always sublime, Parallel Mothers sells everything within its immaculate frames — and surrendering to its emotional, visual and thematic pull is as natural as life and death.

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