By Erica Abeel
Pedro Almodovar’s latest, Parallel Mothers, sets up a dialectic between women’s regenerative powers and the blood-soaked history of pre-WWII Spain.
Parallel Mothers, directed by Pedro Almodovar.
Parallel Mothers, which closed the New York Film Festival 2021 with a grand flourish, plays at times like a telenovela embellished with auteurist bona fides. This will hardly surprise Almodovar fans. In a departure, though, his new film also weaves in Spain’s troubled history, in particular the mass murders and other atrocities visited by Franco on his opponents around the time of the Civil War, lending it gravitas and poignancy. That legacy of injustice and violent death frames a story — central to the auteur’s oeuvre — about women bringing forth new life, the various shades of maternity, and female community independent of men. As always, Almodovar’s ravishing colors and interior design are all on display; Mothers unscrolls primarily indoors, as if Nature would be a sorry substitute for the palette, proportions, and artful tchotchkes — placed just so — of the auteur’s curated world.
As Janis, ever-gorgeous Penelope Cruz is a photographer nearing 40. She first appears shooting a magazine piece about Arturo (Israel Elejalde), an attractive forensic anthropologist and head of the Historical Memory Association, tasked with digging up the unmarked graves of Franco’s victims so the families can give them a proper burial. Post-shoot Janis urgently presses Arturo to help locate the grave of her own great-grandfather. Before you can say “excavate” the pair rendezvous in a hotel room in Madrid, white curtains billowing in the breeze.
Cut to a maternity ward where Janis is beginning labor in a room with Ana, another pregnant woman barely out of her teens. This alacrity is standard practice with Almodovar and a major delight in his films. He cheekily skips transitions (it’s Arturo’s baby we presume, several beats late) and hurtles to major plot points, kind of like a luge speeding along its course.
The two new mothers bond while the babies are “in observation” at the hospital for possible complications. Almodovar never lacks for backstories. Named by hippie parents for Janis Joplin, Janis, it turns out, has previously split with Arturo, who is caring for a sick wife and not in the market for a second family. No agonizing here over an absent father, or, heaven forfend, male betrayal. Janis decided she and Arturo could never go the distance; she’s joyously prepared to raise the baby on her own. What a thumb in the eye to centuries of weeping women! Janis turns for support to her bestie, Rossy de Palma, the Almodovar regular whose outsize presence never fails to startle.
Ana (newcomer Milena Smit, excellent) is less sanguine. She’s been effectively shafted by her mother, who would rather pursue a last-ditch acting career than change diapers; her dad can’t be bothered. Typically, for the Spanish auteur, everyone, as Jean Renoir said, has her reasons.
Complications multiply. Arturo stops by to look at his baby and announces with conviction she’s not his child. Janice goes ballistic. (Rossy remarks, “She is rather ethnic looking,” which is not true of her parents.) A couple of maternity tests, and the truth is revealed (though the viewer has likely already guessed this bombshell lifted straight from soap opera). Meanwhile Ana has moved in with Janis, a maternal figure to the teenager. Inevitably in Almodovar, where desire obeys no rules, the women become lovers. Incest-lite is right in his wheelhouse. With Arturo still on the periphery, along with a second wrench of the plot, all bases are loaded.
The film’s energy sags in the third act, which focuses on a visit with Arturo to Janis’s family in their village, as he organizes the excavation of the grave site. The filmmaker is more at ease with the heat and textures of maternal love than he is with grand historical statements.
Mothers treats the viewer with a rhapsody in different hues of green — even the fridge is olive, Arturo’s car an eye-popping chartreuse. Colors are a virtual character in Almodovar, and serve to link scenes. As always, Cruz is the perfect embodiment of the auteur’s impetuous style. She manages a nakedness — even loaded with eye makeup — that elides any space between her and the viewer. Some actresses do fine work, but you’re never aware of their bodies (think Streep and Nicole Kidman). Not so with Cruz. Her physicality flashes from the screen. Her bosom, a virtual scene-stealer, deserves a credit of its own. (Almodovar has declared his fascination with this part of his star’s anatomy.)
Smit nails the vulnerability of a young woman who’s been brutalized by male buddies (shades of Brett Kavanaugh) and cast aside by her family. As a mother who herself craves a mother, she shines in scenes with Cruz that reflect her neediness. Like few male filmmakers, Almodovar is in deep sympathy with women, celebrating the rich worlds they fashion with each other. Amusingly, the male characters are shallow, indecisive, okay for fun in bed and reproducing the species, but ancillary. The filmmaker is not only in sync with the times but maybe several steps ahead.
Mothers sets up a dialectic between women’s regenerative powers and the blood-soaked history of pre-WWII Spain, but it could be argued that the two themes fail to entirely mesh. The connection points between them may stretch a bridge too far. Still, a final scene of villagers marching with their photos of the departed will moisten eyes. And, an odd thing for a critic to say — it’s best if you suspend critical judgment of this film, and simply allow its wayward momentum to bear you along.
Erica Abeel is a novelist, film and cultural critic, and former professor at CUNY. Her 2016 novel Wild Girls, about three women rebels of the ’50s, was an Oprah Magazine pick. Her journalism has appeared in the New York Times, Indiewire, and other major sites and national publications. A former dancer, when not writing she’s in a Pilates class or at the barre. Her new novel, The Commune, was recently published by Adelaide Books.