Two expectant mothers about to give birth meet for the first time when they are paired together in a room in a Madrid maternity ward. It is a fateful meeting that will bind the two forever in unknowable and unpredictable ways. Janis (Cruz) is a confident woman near 40 who is full of joy and optimism for the future; Ana (Smit) is a scared teenager fearful of everything that lies ahead for herself and her newborn. Neither mother-to-be has a father by her side.
This is not the first time that writer/director Pedro Almodóvar has visited the topic of motherhood in his films. Nor is it the first time he has cast Penélope Cruz in a role as a pregnant character. (Parallel Mothers marks the fellow Spaniards’ seventh feature film together.) Their collaborations always fit hand in glove as if each were fulfilling the other’s thoughts, and Parallel Mothers represents the pinnacle of their mutual achievements to date.
Melodrama mixes with light-hearted touches, moral dilemmas, and historical reckoning in Almodóvar’s latest. Although hardly devoid of the filmmaker’s signature madcap scenarios and confectionary colors, Parallel Mothers downplays these aspects while a newer, more overtly political sensibility perfuses his work. Just as the mothers give life to a new generation of dreamers and sustainers, the women’s pasts and forebears can shed secrets and answers to the riddles of the present. To say too much here about the turns in this movie’s plot and tones would encroach on the viewers’ own joy in their discovery. Know, however, that Penélope Cruz delivers the finest work of her career and relative newcomer Milena Smit makes a major international breakthrough as the story’s teen mom. Almodóvar encases the entire project in a humanistic glow that finds compassion not only for doting mothers but those who lack what’s commonly referred to as the maternal instinct.
Remember the old running gag from the early seasons of SNL in which Chevy Chase and others at the “Weekend Update” desk reported that Generalissimo Francisco Franco was still dead? Well, dead he remains in Parallel Mothers, although Almodóvar casts the fascist Spanish ruler’s legacy as a bitter pollutant that still blights the present. Unearthing a mass grave that entombed Janis’ great-grandfather, along with other men from his village, at the start of the Spanish Civil War is a major throughline in Parallel Mothers.
What is past inescapably becomes part of the present, and the present is eternally barging into the future. Almodóvar and his parallel mothers rock the cradle in both directions.
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