Peanut butter and chocolate. Garlic and butter. Wine and cheese. Some things are destined to be paired. Penélope Cruz is to Pedro Almodóvar what a bulbous glass of pinot noir is to a fragrant hunk of truffle cheese. The actor and director complement each other’s flavours perfectly. Parallel Mothers is further proof that they’re among the best actor-director film combos of this or any generation. This devastating melodrama sees both artists at the top of their game. Parallel Mothers simply would not be complete without either of its key ingredients.
Cruz and Almodóvar aren’t a new pairing, mind you, and the longevity of their collaboration is surely key. Such intimate, soul-bearing work requires levels of comfort, confidence, and professional rapport built over time. Running with the wine and cheese theme, though, Parallel Mothers is the fruition of their 25 years of collaboration since Live Flesh. These things all get better with age.
The passage of time, moreover, is crucial to this film. The story and lead character require the maturity of aging and the complexity it brings. As Janis, Cruz plays a researcher and photographer exploring wounds both personal and profound. She finds herself in a romantic tryst with a colleague, Arturo (Israel Elejalde), as relief from a project in which she seeks to open a mass grave from Franco’s Civil War, which she believes contains the remains of her great-grandfather. The encounter, however, leaves Janis unexpectedly pregnant. At her age, she knows it’s her last chance. Moreover, excavating her family history has her mindful of keeping the family alive.
Janis opts to have the baby, but she doesn’t go through the event alone. While waiting to deliver, she shares a room with Ana (Milena Smit), a young woman who might otherwise be raising her baby solo. Janis has no regrets about her unexpected turn to motherhood, while Ana quietly does. (Ana’s mom, Teresa, played with scene-stealing panache by Aitana Sánchez-Gijón, isn’t an ideal model despite providing for her granddaughter best she can.)
Both women deliver bouncing, healthy babies, although Janis’s newfound motherhood is twofold. As the elder, she’s also mothering Ana. On her end, Janis has little support beyond some work and repartee with her girlfriend Elena (Rossy de Palma, a hoot, as always), but motherhood brings the two women to an unexpectedly lonely chapter.
The mothers go their separate ways, but Almodóvar boils a taut melodramatic fable that ensures their fates are intertwined. Life deals Janis some cruel turns as Arturo doubts the parentage of their baby, yet can’t resist Janis’s vivacious charm. Ana, meanwhile, experiences tragedies of her own that push her back into Janis’s life.
Melodrama Only Almodóvar Can Do
These encounters brew a storm of emotions that Almodóvar unspools with a delicate touch. Parallel Mothers unfolds with the natural messiness of life with a tragic-comic tale of love, loss, sensuality, and aching desire. The score by Alberto Iglesias expertly guides the shifts in tone as nods to Hitchcock and Sirk swirl. While Almodóvar’s films often intoxicate the senses with their rich colour palettes, lively sexcapades, and hyper-stylized décor—which, rest assured, Parallel Mothers gets a viewer drunk on cinema—his recent films like Pain and Glory and Julieta have shifted inwards. The melodrama of Parallel Mothers is nuanced and natural, as the true canvas of the film is Cruz herself.
Cruz gamely rises to Almodóvar’s challenge. Janis is a complicated woman who is at once selfish and selfless, and Cruz has an uncanny ability to make one’s heart break while watching Janis commit seemingly unforgiveable betrayals. The richness of this performance is the pure raw power of a mother’s love that Cruz conveys so poignantly. Therein resides the complexity of this performance. Without giving too much away, Janis cannot express love without experiencing loss. Cruz, who won Best Actress at the Venice Film Festival and scored a well-deserved Oscar nomination for her performance, sells Janis’s best and worst actions with equal conviction because she makes palpable clear that this woman is grasping at her last chances for love: romantic love, maternal love, and sisterly love. Cruz is heartbreakingly good here, offering a performance of layered humour, warmth, and heartache.
Almodóvar, too, offers one of his most layered feats with Parallel Mothers. Few filmmakers with his longevity continue to work at such a high calibre. As he strips back the layers of Janis’s soul, he mines the character as she excavates Spain’s past. Her project with the mass grave gradually unearths the significance and complexity of Janis’s buried secret. Even as Janis supresses her own betrayal, she confronts familial wounds that struggle to heal in search of closure. Her aunt (Julieta Serrano in a devastating cameo) clearly won’t find peace until she learns what happened to her father.
As the film propels to find the truth behind Janis’s dig, Almodóvar examines Spain’s own reckoning with the past: unexamined wounds go unhealed. Parallel Mothers digs deep, though. It’s a gut-punch delivered with the utmost tenderness.
Parallel Mothers opens in theatres Feb. 11.