Review: Parallel Mothers

SEAL OF APPROVAL

Director: Pedro Almodóvar

Stars: Penélope Cruz, Milena Smit, Aitana Sánchez-Gijón

Having played a supporting role in Almodóvar’s last film – the well-received Pain & Glory – Penélope Cruz takes centre stage for Parallel Mothers, giving her best performance since Volver some 15 years ago.

Cruz plays photographer Janis, who falls pregnant following an affair with an archaeologist named Arturo (Israel Elejalde) whom she has employed to excavate the bones of her family elders, killed in the Spanish Civil War almost a century ago. Janis finds herself in the same maternity ward as a pregnant teen, Ana (Milena Smit). They become fast friends, and the two find their lives intersecting over the ensuing years in intimate and melodramatic ways.

Parallels abound, Almodóvar conjures doubles both absent and accounted for. Uninterested in raising a child, Arturo leaves Janis to raise their daughter alone. Likewise, there is no father figure in the equation for Ana. Janis’ t-shirt “We should all be feminists” is rather jokily on the nose, but in all other respects Parallel Mothers doesn’t pander for points with it’s depiction of industrious women, rather it presents the world as a place where such industry is a pragmatic requirement. Ana’s father is also notably absent, and makes for a rather distracting red herring as we try to appraise just where Almodóvar is leading us.

Duality isn’t just reserved for horizontal matches between Janis and Ana, however. Ana struggles as a new parent chiefly because her mother (Aitana Sánchez-Gijón) has found late success in acting and has decided to grasp this opportunity with both hands. From the beginning of the film we’re to understand that Janis is already a renowned and successful photographer, but Parallel Mothers charts her own struggle to tessellate this identity with that of a single parent. Though never spoken, one senses Janis’ begrudgement. Much as she loves her daughter, she still reaches for her career with outstretched fingers.

Drawing a diagonal line like this reminds us that Janis and Ana are not quite equals; indeed they are separated by age and, to a degree, class. Inequality will come to define their relationship, as Janis learns incendiary truths that would deeply impact Ana, but chooses to keep them to herself. Her motivations are self-serving, yet also protective. Loving and maternal. This sense of Janis’ maternal connection to Ana is then challenged as the two begin a furtive sexual romance. Where once Almodóvar might’ve stoked the sense of transgression, here the move feels natural and, if anything, underplayed.

Parallel Mothers 2021

Parallel Mothers presents Almodóvar at perhaps his most mature; suggesting the heightened camp and exploitation of his younger self, but veering away from these same tendencies. He shows an immense empathy and responsibility to his characters and their emotional truth. While prior films such as Talk to Her impress greatly for their style and narrative cunning, this sense of compassion wasn’t quite there, and it’s appearance now is most welcome.

His sense of style remains satisfyingly in tact, however. The eye for detail here is as ravishing as ever. Parallel Mothers continues his career-long investment in bold colours and beautiful interior design. This codification of objects presents itself boldly within the film, as Janis takes a job photographing high-end merchandise. Almodóvar presents these tokens of fashion with almost fetishistic desire.

But it’s the substance of Parallel Mothers that impacts and impresses, and not just the runaway turn from Cruz that ought to earmark an Oscar nomination at the very least. Come the end, his B-story about the excavation of the dead eclipses his A-story, but in truth they are parallels of one another, as the title implies. Janis and Ana’s relationship hinges on it’s own rending of the past; dealing with the incidents and injustices that have formed the present. Janis is keenly attuned to this idea from the very beginning, and tries to impart the same appreciation to Ana, even as she defies it within the bounds of their relationship. The film’s moving final shot speaks of just how important it is to reconcile past and present. How often they are one and the same. It is an exceedingly cinematic evocation of empathy.

This is a tender film about various traumas, and all of them are given legitimacy.

9 of 10

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