Review: “Parallel Mothers”

In the maternity ward of a Madrid hospital, two women are about to give birth. Janis Martinez (Penélope Cruz) is an acclaimed photographer approaching 40. She had an affair with Arturo (Israel Elejalde), the archaeologist assisting her with the excavation of a mass grave in her home town, where her great-grandfather and many other residents of the village were murdered and buried during the Spanish Civil War of the 1930s. The pregnancy was an accident, but Janis is happy to keep the baby and raise her on her own, even if Arturo—married, and whose wife has cancer—can’t be a part of it. Janis’ roommate is Ana Manso (Milena Smit), a teenager whose pregnancy was also unplanned, but the result of a much more brutal encounter. Where Janis is confident, Ana is scared, and her family don’t appear to be a reliable support system; dad lives in Italy, while mom Teresa (played by a simultaneously icy and remorseful Aitana Sánchez-Gijón) is an actress who just got a big break and will be leaving the city for a while to go on tour.

These are the “Parallel Mothers” of the title of writer/director Pedro Almodóvar’s newest film, but the lives and experiences of Janis and Ana ultimately intertwine in more intimate and surprisingly ways outside of them sharing a hospital room and giving birth at the same time. To discuss the plot further would give away its twists and turns; like much of Almodóvar’s previous work, “Parallel Mothers” contains the heightened melodrama of a telenovela, but the story leans into the humanity of these characters, as opposed to playing up the camp angle. Many of Almodóvar’s films contain a comedic element, but “Parallel Mothers” is a drama through and through.

Penélope Cruz as Janis Martinez in “Parallel Mothers”

And it’s a frequently heart-wrenching drama at that. Gasp-inducing moments of shock are followed by scenes of sorrow and moral dilemmas that will be relatable to many, and moving to anyone who has a pulse. The script is fantastic—complex and empathetic and wise—and the two leads who help bring it to life are phenomenal. Smit is a relative newcomer, but she comes off as a seasoned pro. The fear and uncertainty that made her seem so small and so young in the hospital room is nowhere to be found in Ana when we meet her again later in the movie. Motherhood has prompted her to grow up, and she slides into the role seemingly effortlessly, becoming more independent and having a clearer idea of what she wants out of life and relationships; Smit’s body language and line delivery become more confident to match that. Cruz gives what may be the performance of her career as a woman who is put through all the triumphs and pain that come with motherhood over the length of the film. Her initial confidence and excitement at being a new mother is soon replaced by exhaustion (she has to go back to work) and frustration (the au pair she hired to help with the baby isn’t working out) and later fear and uncertainty. Cruz deftly handles every trial the story throws at her character.

“Parallel Mothers” contains many of the director’s signature stylistic flairs and themes, like his use of a bold color palette, and it is another female-centric entry in Almodóvar’s canon. Similar to, for instance, “Volver” (which also starred Cruz in an Oscar-nominated performance), the actions and influences of men in the lives of the female characters hang over the film but don’t dominate it, and the male characters are rarely present on screen. The story primarily revolves around Janis and Ana as opposed to a community of women, but the influence of their female relatives are present. This is a story about single mothers in particular. At the beginning of the film, Janis mentions that she will be a single mom like her mother and grandmother; later on, she tells Ana that she was the daughter of a hippie, named for Janis Joplin, and that her mom died of an overdose at the age of 27, leaving her to be raised by her grandmother. Ana’s parents, meanwhile, have long been separated, but her mother didn’t play a big role in raising her, choosing her career instead—a choice she tries to make some amends for in the movie. Within the fairly small confines of these two family circles, Almodóvar shows us many examples of motherhood and strong women making their way through the world in the absence of men.

Milena Smit and Penélope Cruz in “Parallel Mothers”

This all ties back to the storyline that runs parallel to that of the parallel mothers, the excavation of the mass grave. At first glimpse, these two events appear to have little in common, and Almodóvar doesn’t return to the story of the grave often enough between the film’s start and finish to really drive home similarities. But his approach begs the viewer to ponder the connection between the political messaging and the familial one, and it’s rewarding if you do so. Both involve the removal of men from the picture, leaving the women behind. One storyline looks to make peace with the past, while the other looks to raising and nurturing the future. And both are tied by generations of family coming together; grandparents and grandchildren, parents and children, blood family and chosen family, the living and the dead. The film’s breathtaking final shot, one that connects those on earth with those who have passed on, is among the most solemn and beautiful scenes in Almodóvar’s whole filmography. Not all of the drama and messy relationships are perfectly resolved by the end of “Parallel Mothers,” but Almodóvar leaves us with the feeling that, as complicated as life and specifically for this story motherhood is, everything at the end of the day will be okay.

“Parallel Mothers” is now playing in select theaters. Runtime: 123 minutes. Rated R.

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