Even at 72, Spanish filmmaker Pedro Almodóvar is still churning out his unique brand of movies at a strong and steady rate. It’s clear the two-time Oscar winner still relishes the opportunity to tell specific stories stamped with his own distinguishing marks. His films often revisit the same handful of repackaged themes, and they often feature the same stylistic flourishes, both narratively and visually. Reoccurring motifs, vibrant colors, and creative indulgences are key ingredients to the veteran filmmaker’s mise-en-scène.
Almodóvar’s latest is “Parallel Mothers”, a percolating melodrama about motherhood that once again echoes much of the style and many of the interests from the writer-director’s past projects. As someone who tends to be ambivalent towards his films, I feel this is easily one of Almodóvar’s more accessible features, with characters and a story audiences should immediately connect with. Yet it’s a movie with pieces that don’t always click into place. One with a sublime first hour that’s among the filmmaker’s best work, but a spotty second half where some of Almodóvar’s storytelling choices makes things needlessly messy.
Shot in just one month during the pandemic, “Parallel Mothers” stars Penélope Cruz, a terrific actress who seems to do her best work under Almodóvar’s direction. This is their seventh film together and the two possess an almost symbiotic chemistry as filmmaker and performer. Here the sure-footed Cruz takes on a meaty role and turns in an emotionally rich performance – one that won her the Volpi Cup for Best Actress at Cannes.
Cruz plays Janis, an accomplished professional photographer living in Madrid. Single and approaching 40, Janis longs to start a family but worries her window for having children is closing. We first meet her at a photo shoot for a handsome forensic anthropologist named Arturo (Israel Elejalde). After the shoot she approaches Arturo about helping her with a personal matter. Janis tells him about her great grandfather and several other men from his village who were killed in a state-sanctioned slaughter during the Spanish Civil War. She asks if he would lead an excavation of an unmarked mass grave where the victims are believed to be buried.
As Janis and Arturo work through the details of the potential excavation, it’s pretty obvious there’s a spark between them. Before long the two begin an affair, and shortly after that Janis learns she’s pregnant. The problem is Arturo is married and doesn’t want a child (go figure). But Janis chooses to have her baby and frees Arturo of any obligations.
In the first of several leaps forward in time, it’s suddenly nine months later and Janis is in a maternity ward about to give birth. She shares a room with Ana (Milena Smit), a much younger soon-to-be single mother. “I don’t regret it”, an enthusiastic Janis tells Ana. “I do,” replies the frightened teen whose pregnancy we learn was the result of a traumatic encounter. The two new mothers bond as a sympathetic Janis comforts and assures the apprehensive Ana. But they quickly fall out of touch once they leave the hospital with their newborn daughters.
As Janis settles into single motherhood, Arturo pops back into the picture, casting doubts on whether the baby is his. Meanwhile Ana has went from an insecure teenager to a responsible mom. Her scenes unpack her backstory which includes a troubled family life. We hear about her vindictive absent father and see her tense relationship with her mother (Aitana Sánchez-Gijón) who can’t let something like her daughter’s pregnancy hinder her acting career.
Predictably Janis and Ana’s paths inevitably cross again, but to say much more would undermine the big soapy twists the story hinges on. Some of them work well and add layers that feels rooted in real world truth. They’re helped by Cruz who’s as assured as she is luminous. She shrewdly portrays every facet of Janis, from her sophistication to her vulnerability. And despite her character’s seemingly dubious choices, Cruz still captures our empathy. Smit’s performance starts strong, especially as she conveys Ana’s fear and doe-eyed naïveté. But later, as the story takes some unusual turns, Smit can seem stiff and cold, especially when next to Cruz.
But not every twist works. Well into the second half, Almodóvar wedges in an out-of-the-blue romantic angle that never fully rings true. Aside from being woefully underdeveloped, it needlessly complicates an already compellingly intricate relationship. Even worse, the movie all but forgets about it almost as quickly as it’s introduced. Clearly Almodóvar wants there to be a lingering affect, but it’s handled so casually that it comes across as superficial.
And then there’s the jarring transition back to the excavation storyline. It doesn’t return until the very end where it feels like an afterthought. It’s a shame because the prospect of Almodóvar digging into Franco’s reign of terror is a fascinating one. And the notion of not only exhuming loved ones, but exhuming a country’s painful past – a past that has yet to be fully reckoned with – is riveting. But those final scenes, though really good on their own, don’t connect to the rest of the film quite the way Almodóvar wants. Nor do they haunt the overall story as effectively as they could have with just a little more attention.
“Parallel Mothers” shines brightest as a female-centric examination of motherhood, complete with all its joys and heartaches. Single parenting, absent fathers, family history – they all factor in. Yet Almodóvar’s scattershot second half wastes time tacking on half-baked layers to the melodrama rather than connecting us to the more serious story that bookends the movie. It left me admiring what he was going yet frustrated by his inability to fully convey it. “Parallel Mothers” is now out in limited release.