Parallel Mothers

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Director Pedro Almodóvar’s Parallel Mothers is such an accessible marriage of glamorous actors and sumptuous set design that it’s easy to forget his raw beginnings. Back in the late 1970s, he had more in common with experimental talents like Andy Warhol and John Waters. His first full-length was an underground flick called Folle… folle… fólleme Tim! My apologies to Spanish speakers for the language. The ultra-low-budget 1978 comedy was never even released. Since that inauspicious debut, he’s been showered with accolades. By 1988 most North American art house aesthetes became aware of his talent with Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown. It was nominated for Best Foreign Language Film. An Academy Award in 2003 for Best Original Screenplay (Talk to Her) followed. Almodóvar is the most internationally acclaimed Spanish filmmaker since Luis Buñuel. The evolution of his career has been kind of extraordinary.

His latest Parallel Mothers is a highly polished drama that examines the traumas of Spanish history by way of two women about to give birth. Janis (Penélope Cruz) is a fashion photographer and Ana (Milena Smit) is a single teen mother. The father of Ana’s baby is not in the picture, but Janis does have contact with her baby’s father. Arturo (Israel Elejalde), a forensic anthropologist, is married and their tryst was a casual fling. He’s also not present at the delivery either. The women’s shared experience unites them. Their lives become inextricably linked from that day forward.

Director Pedro Almodóvar has such a rapport with actress Penelope Cruz. Their association goes back to 1997’s Live Flesh. Over the past 25 years, the actress has become his muse. He has extracted some of her best performances. Volver in 2006 is a perfect example. This is her seventh collaboration with the auteur. Here again, she is luminescent in the starring role. She gives a multifaceted Oscar-nominated performance in a role that is remarkably subtle. This entertaining movie kept me transfixed for the entire runtime.

Parallel Mothers is an elegant production with a lot of working parts. There are abrupt flashbacks, melodramatic situations, and odd tonal shifts in the narrative. The glossy production vacillates between comedy to drama employing the developments of a soap opera. At one point, Janis makes a shocking discovery. The tale becomes about that information and then whether Janis will reveal this bit of news to anyone. The sweeping romantic score by Alberto Iglesias (which also got an Oscar nomination) emphasizes this.

I do contend that an understanding of the period known as Francoist Spain is helpful. The account is bookended by the history of the people who opposed dictator Francisco Franco during the Spanish Civil War and lost their lives. Janis wants to excavate an unmarked gravesite that may contain her great grandfather. The ability to connect the dots between that painful past and the story presented here is important. It’s an artistic choice to frame the picture at the beginning and the end with this plot. Almodóvar is making a pointed political comment on his country’s past. Tellingly Spain did not submit this much-lauded release for Best International Feature. Therefore it wasn’t even eligible to compete in that Oscar category. (Fernando León de Aranoa’s comedy The Good Boss was submitted instead). Almodóvar’s refined movie is conventional when compared to the director’s earlier work, but four decades later, the director still manages to ruffle some feathers.


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