For much of his career, director Pedro Almodovar has devoted himself to a pleasure-filled aesthetic. Almodovar's Parallel Mothers doesn’t entirely abandon the director's love of splash colors. Almodovar's characters typically arrive on screen drenched in decor and design. The women in his movies seldom appear ordinary.
Of course, there’s another side to this coin. Does the emphasis on exteriors cloak what’s on the inside of all those characters? Is Almodovar playing a sly game with us?
Living in Spain, Almodovar must know that his country’s leap into post-Franco modernism carried risks, even as it brought gender fluidity, sexual expression, and bold artistic expression.
The joys of liberation threaten to obscure a brutal past in which dissent and dissenters were not tolerated.
That's the troubling foundation on which Almodovar allows Parallel Mothers to unfold, focusing his story on a successful photographer (Penelope Cruz) who's trying to settle a debt with the past.
In her work. Cruz's Janis meets Arturo (Israel Elejalde), a forensic archaeologist. She wants Arturo to help excavate a site which the folks in her hometown have identified as the location of a mass murder. Janis's great grandfather was among those slain by fascist soldiers.
As the story evolves, the personal and the political prove inseparable. Janis sleeps with Arturo, becomes pregnant, and opts to keep the baby. The married Arturo isn’t ready to leave his ailing wife. Janis seems intent on being a single mother.
Almodovar sketches all this quickly before settling into the main part of the movie, which deals with Janis’ relationship with another young mother (Milena Smit), this one still a teenager.
The two women meet when both are in labor and sharing a room at a Madrid hospital.
Almodovar opts for a contrivance (I won’t reveal it here) that easily could have sunk his movie, pushing it toward cliche. Instead, he shows us how the two women are drawn together as they face troubling questions, some hinging on generational differences.
Still a young woman, Smit’s Ana is less attuned to recent Spanish history than Janis. She’s a kid and she’s given a nearly impish look that’s reinforced by Smit’s performance.
Additional characters appear. Almodovar veteran Rossy de Palma portrays Janis’s editor, a woman who hires Janis for glossy photoshoots. Ana’s mother (Aitana Sanchez-Gijon), an actress, seems too preoccupied with her career to fully acknowledge her daughter.
Cruz’s performance holds the movie together. Cruz has talked about the intuitive connection she has with Almodovar. Since 1977, she has made seven films with Almodovar, including Volver (2006) and All About My Mother (1999).
I don’t know if Cruz is romanticizing her relationship with Almodovar but her work here is first-rate. She’s playing a character burdened with her own issues while fulfilling a cultural responsibility, an obligation to the past.
At a key point in the movie, Janis also must make a crucial decision about her own relationship to the truth.
By the movie's end, Almodovar has reminded us of a lesson that goes beyond Spain, the Spanish Civil War, and totalitarianism. We must dig up the past before we can put it to rest. We owe it to the dead and to ourselves.