Two women meet in a maternity ward and their lives become inextricably linked in Pedro Almodóvar’s gentle but penetrating “ Parallel Mothers.”
It’s a film that on one level plays like a melodrama, with wild twists and turns fitting of soap opera cliffhangers. But there is something deeper going on too, underneath the beautiful surface and base pleasures of plot and simply watching Penélope Cruz through Almodóvar’s loving lens. “Parallel Mothers,” at its core, is about Spain and the lingering traumas of the Spanish Civil War, which robbed a generation of fathers, husbands and sons.
This loss haunts Cruz’s Janis, an accomplished magazine photographer, who takes it upon herself to ask the forensic anthropologist she’s photographing if he’d consider excavating the site where her great-grandfather and his peers were executed and dumped under Francisco Franco’s regime. They know who is in the grave and where it is and for decades have passed the story down hoping that at some point their ancestors will be given proper burials.
Then we don’t hear anything about this project for quite some time. It might seem at first that Almodóvar is abandoning this excavation plot rather quickly. The anthropologist, Arturo (Israel Elejalde), is very handsome, Janis begins an affair and next thing you know she’s about to give birth, alone. But Almodóvar is just patiently building layers of life that he will eventually bring back around to this original loss.
Though Arturo is not in there to see the delivery of their child, Janis does have a roommate, a teenager, Ana (the fierce newcomer Milena Smit), who is also about to give birth without a partner. Janis wants a child. Ana does not. Soon they find themselves smitten with their daughters and start to negotiate life with a tiny, helpless attachment. Though they’re both single mothers, they are privileged ones. Ana’s family is wealthy and Janis can afford a maid and live-in nanny. Even if it’s all a little romanticized, Almodóvar gives it room to breathe and it’s lifelike enough.
But of course things start to get complicated. Arturo doubts the child is his and Janis soon finds it’s not even hers. You can probably partially guess where this is going, but “Parallel Mothers” has more than a few surprises up its brightly colored sleeves. The dramatic turns are almost beside the point, since throughout Almodóvar is also quietly planting a garden of family histories, nontraditional parenting arrangements, complicated mothers and absent fathers and many, many losses. It’s these details that build the film’s rich foundation. Aitana Sánchez-Gijón, as Ana’s actor mother, is a particular standout and would fit right in with the complex mothers of another of the year's standouts, “ The Lost Daughter.” And it's a gorgeous showcase for Cruz. Hopefully she and Almodóvar have more than a few more films in them.
“Parallel Mothers” might not be as transcendently cinematic as his last, “Pain & Glory,” and perhaps part of that has to do with the fact that it was filmed during a pandemic, but its emotional core is no less powerful even if it’s a little more subtle. This one takes a beat to sink in, but it’s worth it.
“Parallel Mothers,” a Sony Pictures Classics release in theaters Friday, is rated R by the Motion Picture Association of America for “some sexuality.” Running time: 122 minutes. Three and a half stars out of four.
MPAA Definition of R: Restricted. Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian.
Follow AP Film Writer Lindsey Bahr on Twitter: www.twitter.com/ldbahr
Lindsey Bahr, The Associated Press