Parallel Mothers (2021)
Written & Directed by Pedro Almodovar
At this point, can we acknowledge that Pedro Almodovar’s work exists in its own genre of cinema? The feel and look of all his movies are just so beyond everything else out there. He builds suspenseful narratives on premises that aren’t inherently thriller material. There is an ever-present sinister vibe, but ultimately his characters embrace the conflict and work through it, often forming makeshift families and coming to terms with the weight of the past. Almodovar clearly loves the stylish thrills of Hitchcock and the scandalous developments of telenovelas but also feels a need to address the history of Spain, especially war crimes and atrocities. The result is just unlike anything you will see anywhere else.
Janis Martinez (Penelope Cruz) ends up pregnant after a tryst with married anthropologist Arturo (Israel Elejalde). He wants to be in the baby’s life, but she pushes him away during the pregnancy. Janis shares her hospital room with teenage mom-to-be Ana (Milena Smit), and the two form a quick bond of friendship. They have their babies and go their separate ways, and months later, Arturo meets his child, immediately claiming it’s not his. Janis has to admit there is little resemblance, but she insists he takes after her father, whom she never met and only had described to her. There’s obviously something going on, and Janis begins to investigate further, leading to her reunion with Ana and some significant changes in her life.
There is no other film in 2021 that is as visually rich as this one. Almodovar has completely mastered the art of lighting in cinema to the point that his nighttime shots take on the elements of moving oil paintings. I was floored by how elegant and gorgeous every shot looked. He’s somehow imbued live-action with a sheen of the uncanny and has put pretty much every slickly-produced Hollywood blockbuster to absolute shame. His sex scenes are impeccable, and he adores his leading ladies, making sure they give some of the best shots you could imagine, even in the most mundane of settings.
Almodovar has always been ahead of the curve in feminist cinema, and here he gives us some of the most well-developed characters we’ve seen so far. Janis is very comfortable in her career as a photographer for a fashion magazine. She doesn’t flinch when she discovers she’s pregnant and offers Arturo a way out if he isn’t comfortable sending shockwaves through his marriage. Cruz feels right at home in this character, an actress who, even when she was young, exuded a type of rare confidence and vulnerability. The big surprise was newcomer Milena Smith who shows the same prowess we saw once in a young Cruz. Smith can keep pace with the older actress, and the two have fantastic chemistry.
The story is just a brilliant blend of soap opera tropes and meaningful political commentary, two things that sound so disparate yet blend beautifully in the hands of a cinematic maestro. There are a handful of subplots, and he manages to wrap each and everyone up with such a magnificent flow, never allowing the movie to become dull or sag in the middle. As soon as the story starts, it’s tough for the viewer to disengage as new twists and revelations are presented. The director has an agenda, but he’s so clever you don’t realize the true purpose of the movie until he begins tying together loose ends. The story of motherhood is actually about grief and acknowledging loss. This all connects to a seemingly minor subplot where Janis has asked Arturo to help uncover the remains of her dead family members left in an unmarked mass grave by the Franco regime decades ago. I was reminded of writer/director John Sayles in certain moments as he, like Almodovar, knows how to tell personal stories that blossom into larger political narratives.
The two mothers in this story become the two halves of Spain, torn apart by war but chugging into the present, scared to acknowledge the dark secret between them. They each view the world in vastly different ways, both independent thought and finding some solace in each other. Their roles as mothers become more fluid with time, one woman raising the other’s child and then in reverse. As Janis seeks to uncover an awful horror from her family’s past, Ana struggles to come to terms with the conception of her child. Almodovar doesn’t shy away from confronting complex topics, and this film is no exception. Parallel Mothers serves as a reminder that we have a living film treasure in Almodovar, a person born to make cinema and who seems to have an unending reservoir of creativity and passion at his fingertips.