By Jim Gilles
Los Angeles, CA (The Hollywood Times) 12/27/21 – Opening today in selected theatres is Pedro Almodóvar’s Parallel Mothers (Spain, 2021), his latest film which is haunted by the ghosts of history but also a story of transference at a number of levels by the characters in the film. The movie’s hook is right there in the title. Two women from different backgrounds and different aspirations, and of different ages, give birth on the same day while rooming at a Madrid hospital. The movie follows their story, which gets knotty in the way that Almodóvar movies tend to do. The movie begins with Penelope Cruz’s character, Janis, hiring the forensic archeologist, Arturo, to exhume the graves of some relatives who were lost to fascist killers in the Spanish Civil War. This seems like a pretext, that is, to get the two attractive people in bed and get 40-year-old Janis impregnated. It is not a pretext. It’s a thread, and the movie is about coming to terms with both the present and the past. The story has no on-screen villains; all the characters, including the young mother Ana (Milena Smit) and Janis’ best friend Elena (Rossy de Palma) are good people coping with insane circumstances. The humane perspective of the movie doesn’t shy away from a frank confrontation of the evil men do. Parallel Mothers is a complex film but ultimately consoling.
A high-end photographer, Janis (Penélope Cruz) meets a forensic anthropologist, Arturo (Israel Elejalde), whom she’s shooting for a magazine, inquiring about his involvement in recovering bones from hidden burial sites across Spain. Arturo belongs to an organization that can potentially help Janis exhume the remains of her grandfather, though an approval procedure is involved that could take months. Janis and Arturo end up soon after into bed together, after which Almodóvar skips ahead to Janis in the hospital on the verge of giving birth to their child, where she meets a pregnant teenager named Ana (Milena Smit). The women bond over their experiences and a friendship blooms. Their story is so immediately involving that one may assume that the victims of the Spanish civil war will be left in hindsight, having served the narrative purpose of bringing these characters together. But, like all of history, these lost people inform the present day.
Almodóvar provides us with a potentially convoluted setup with Parallel Mothers. In the tradition of Sirk and Hitchcock, Almodóvar has become a master of crafting scenes that casually reverberate with endless levels of subtext. For instance, one moment in Janis and Ana’s shared hospital room sharply contextualizes their differing support systems. Janis’s magazine editor, Elena (Rossy de Palma), is warm, supportive, and good-humored, while Ana’s mother, Teresa (Aitana Sánchez-Gijón), talks mostly of her acting career, regarding Janis and Elena’s effortless friendship with befuddlement. Each woman takes their respective baby to their respective home, and the tensions of each character’s particularly drawn family arise to the surface.
The women of this film suffer, particularly Ana, but they aren’t condescendingly painted as martyrs. They have clear identities, and they make choices that are understood to be at least partially defined by cultural traditions and political influences. And while Arturo is married, he’s not demonized as an ambitious philanderer, as he clearly loves Janis and wishes to be in her life and that of her child. It’s history that separates them, because Janis prides herself on being a single mom like her mother and her grandmother, though this pride is laced with pain, a sense of isolation as not only admirable but inevitable. Janis is a poignant, loving, adrift control freak, and she’s among Almodóvar and Cruz’s greatest creations.
Janis is unwittingly duplicating and carrying forth a tradition of male absence that began with her great-grandfather’s killing during the Spanish Civil War. Janis is only semi-conscious of this behavior, and Almodóvar somehow makes the neuroses of these actions lucid without thuddingly underscoring them for his audience. And while Teresa initially comes across as a caricature of the self-absorbed careerist, we eventually learn that her life is riven with the sort of baggage that connects her viscerally to her daughter and even to Janis as well. There are no villains in Parallel Mothers, as everyone here is granted the gift of Almodóvar’s warm, empathetic embrace.
Almodóvar continues to toy with notions of heritage and erasure. Janis’s great-grandfather figures into the film in unexpected ways, especially when it comes to how Janis and Arturo regard their child’s face, looking for traces of familial resemblance and wondering about why she looks so “ethnic.” As the years pass, Janis and Ana become lovers, which, given their age differences, suggests on Ana’s part an incestuous working out of issues with her mother. Almodóvar piles on cross-associations that enrich the braided nature of the film: A linking of past and present women holding the pieces of a society together.