Parallel Mothers (2021)
There is little else like a Pedro Almodóvar movie. The famed Spanish writer/director has been making movies since the 1980s and across an eclectic array of tones and genres. He can make a sexual farce, an unsettling thriller, a moving character-based drama, or a movie with elements of all three in harmony. Almodóvar has found ways to take some of the strangest story elements and make them feel real. Watch a movie like 2002’s Talk to Her, which he won his only (!) Oscar for, or 2011’s The Skin I Live In, or 2006’s Volver, and marvel at how seamlessly Almodóvar can combine any element, any genre, any twist, and turn it into genuine emotional pathos. He’s a witty man but rarely is he flippant, especially as he matured throughout the 1990s. He genuinely cares about his characters and treats their dramas as serious business no matter the content. Parallel Mothers is another example of Almodóvar, even in his seventies, operating at the top of his unique artistic capabilities. This is definitely one of the best movies of 2021. Find it when you can, dear reader.
Janis (Penelope Cruz) and Ana (Milena Smit) are both recent mothers in Madrid; Janis is pushing 40 and planned on having her first child, and Ana is in her late teens and her pregnancy was an accident. They share a hospital room, bond over their ordeal, and exchange phone numbers to keep in touch. Months later, both women are acclimating to the growing demands of motherhood, except for a gnawing doubt that has taken hold of Janis. Her boyfriend and the reported father of her baby, Arturo (Israel Elejalde), believes he is not the baby’s father and wants a DNA test. Janis is outraged, but the more she begins to think about it, the more she cannot let this nagging doubt go.
Parallel Mothers is an unpredictable drama that also has a surprising heft to it when it comes to emotional substance. When I read the premise of this movie, I erroneously thought it was going to be a two-hander of a story about two different mothers, one older and one younger, connecting over their new babies and sharing their experiences, hopes, and fears about raising a child at their respective ages. That is a fraction of the movie, but Almodóvar’s deft storytelling is refreshingly nuanced and unexpected. There were several turns in the movie where I audibly said, “Ohhhhh,” or, “Did not see that coming.” Instead of resting on his plot turns, Almodóvar makes sure that the aftermath is given its due time. I really appreciated that; here is a writer who knows throwing sensational elements or twists is not as important as focusing on how they affect the characters and narrative. When Janis begins to doubt whether her child is hers, that’s when Almodóvar is just getting started. There are several twists that are so well staged and developed, and each one brings added intensity and another chance to revise everything we know. I loved watching the movie because I genuinely could not anticipate where things would go next, and each additional turn was organic, meaningful, and would compound the guilt or fears of the main characters. It might seem like a soap opera when you distill all these outrageous elements to their essence, but Almodóvar has always excelled at taking the outrageous and making it sincere.
The movie explores motherhood but also generational connections and understanding the past to better understand the present. Janis and Ana have different though distant relationships to their mothers. For Janis, her mother died of a drug overdose at the age of 27 when she was only five years old. She was raised by her grandmother and has no picture of her biological father (the only thing she knows about him is that he was a Venezuelan drug dealer). By having a child, a goal she’s wanted to do for some time before 40, it allows her a chance of bringing her father’s genetics back into the world, to potentially see what he may look like, to bring back life that has been absent. It’s such a beautiful idea, and also articulated in 2009’s Away We Go to poignant effect. For Janis, having a child is a way for her to reconnect with her past, her parents she’s never known, and honor her grandmother. For Ana, her own mother left her when she was younger to purse her acting career, and now that she’s having a baby history is repeating as she’s once again leaving to tour with a theater show. Janis thought she knew who the father of her baby was, and insists she was only intimate with Arturo, but this ends up being another point of connection between the two mothers. Ana is unsure whom the father is of her child, though hopeful it’s a select person she had feelings for at the time. These babies mean different things for each woman but they both love them completely, no matter what devastation happens later. These beloved children are means of connecting to their past.
Another aspect that Almodóvar includes strengthened this movie as great for me, and initially it seemed like an odd fit until the thematic richness becomes realized. Before she was pregnant, Janis was determined to secure an exhumation of what is believed to be a mass grave in a small rural village from the Spanish Civil War and Francisco Franco’s regime. Using modern technology and careful attendants, they can uncover this crime of the past and provide closure and dignity to generations of family members still left with unanswered questions. The movie returns to this storyline again late, as if Almodóvar is putting a fine point on bringing home his message of reckoning with our past and the importance of uncovering painful truths. Janis and Arturo return to this small village and interview descendants about what they can remember about their departed loved ones, the men whose remains may be found. It’s such a sincere expression of empathy and generosity, and the short snippets of interviews allow the movie to broaden its scope, adding different mothers and daughters to the sphere and creating even more spokes of human connection. What Janis is doing is a legitimate kindness, an act she hopes to better understand her own history and family ties to the worst that her country had to offer under Franco. One villager recounts how her grandfather had to dig his own grave, then was sent home for the night, only to be reclaimed and never return the next day. “Why didn’t he run if given the chance?” Janis asks. The descendant relates he couldn’t be without his wife and daughter, even for a night, even if it meant his certain doom.
Cruz has never been better than when she’s collaborated with Almodóvar (2006’s Volver was her first Oscar nomination). She goes through some emotional wringers here, the details of which I will not spoil, but it is an understatement to say that Janis is presented with a very complicated scenario. Each scene, especially in the second half once Almodóvar’s box of twists has been unpacked, has so much conflicted emotion for Cruz to cycle through on her face, swallowing guilt and hope and desire and dread. She’s fully deserving of another Oscar nomination for her heartbreaking work with the messiest of material. Smit (The Girl in the Mirror) is a screen partner equal to the challenge but her character is more in the dark by narrative necessity.
I’m loath to reveal too much more when it comes to the potent central drama of Parallel Mothers, because it’s so well developed and so well performed that you should really experience it for yourself. Knowing ahead of time the added complexities won’t ruin the movie, but I had more appreciation for how Almodóvar was so nimbly able to keep upending my expectations and my sense of understanding as it pertained to the two mothers. It’s a delicate drama, nourishing with empathy and also heart-rending in the dread of what Janis may choose to do next. Thank you, filmmakers of the world, for lifting the 2021 year in cinema for me. Parallel Mothers is one of the best films you’ll see this year and an affecting examination on reconciliation.
Nate’s Grade: A