Parallel Mothers marks the 22nd feature film as director for Pedro Almodóvar, the Spanish Oscar winner whose credits include acclaimed hits such as Talk to Her, The Skin I Live In, Broken Embraces and Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown. While the drama will no doubt be a must-see for Almodóvar aficionados and fans of star Penélope Cruz, it finds itself some distance away from the heights of this prolific writer-director’s best pictures.
The film follows two women, photographer Janis (Cruz) and the younger Ana (Milena Smit, Cross the Line), whose lives become intertwined after meeting and befriending each other at the maternity ward on the day they are both due to give birth. For Janis, this is an unexpected child she has decided to have and raise on her own; for Ana, her child is also unexpected, albeit at a difficult time as she is a teen in high school. Their paths as single mothers go their separate ways, but as if by fate, they are to connect again. As their relationship develops, their differences, their similarities, and their vastly different experiences of motherhood find them on an emotional road of ups, downs, and revelations.
With Parallel Mothers, Almodóvar has chosen to cover two topics – themes, if you will. The primary theme is that of womanhood and motherhood, looking at the joy and heartbreak that comes with differing maternal natures, and the very role that mothers have on one’s upbringing. The other topic is that of the Spanish Civil War; specifically, the mass graves – the dark history and heartbreaking memories that remain buried, literally and figuratively. The latter is drawn into the narrative with Janis’ desire to have a mass grave in her home village excavated, in the hope that at least some closure will be provided to her family and others that have long known of the site but been unable to have it unearthed.
While Almodóvar has shown time and time again that he can beautifully weave together various themes and ideas on a sometimes highly intricate narrative canvas, Parallel Mothers doesn’t quite balance its two key subject matters in an emotionally satisfying manner. There are, of course, connections made with these thematical ends: the filmmaker draws interesting parallels with parental absence and the generational trauma that can strike a nation, for example. But while the topics themselves are touched upon in sometimes interesting fashion, there’s a disjointed feel to the two sides. The story of these two women is certainly of primary importance, but perhaps overly so, as it can seem as though Almodóvar sporadically remembers the mass grave subplot. The sudden lean into this subplot in the latter stages feels unearned; we know what is happening is important and Almodóvar crafts a visually striking finale, but the emotional crescendo isn’t there.
Almodóvar’s screenplay also suffers from some awkward plotting. There’s a relatively simplistic trajectory here, so it’s certainly one of Almodóvar’s more accessible pictures in a narrative sense, but developments are too obviously telegraphed and, occasionally, too contrived to ring natural. You’ll see a lot of it coming, which doesn’t serve Almodóvar’s brand of twisty, top-tier melodrama very well here.
Nevertheless, there are still moments of Almodóvar greatness to enjoy. His balance of enjoyably weighty, soapy dialogue can still crack. And although the tonal and thematical juggling isn’t always on point, he does deliver undeniable earnestness and heart in his exploration of feminity and motherhood of all forms. Plus, he has two very strong leads. Cruz and Smit give fantastic performances, utterly convincing as two women on emotional journeys.
Parallel Mothers is a bumpy but nevertheless worthy entry on the Almodóvar CV. It features yet another strong Almodóvar-directed turn from Cruz and cements Smit as one to look out for.