Director: Pedro Almodóvar
Cast: Penélope Cruz, Milena Smit, Israel Elejalde, Aitana Sánchez-Gijón, Rossy de Palma, Julieta Serrano
Runtime: 2 hr 3 mins
Rating: R21 (Some Homosexual Content)
Released By: Shaw Organisation
Opening Day: 17 February 2022
Synopsis: Two women, Janis and Ana, coincide in a hospital room where they are going to give birth. Both are single and became pregnant by accident. Janis, middle-aged, doesn't regret it and she is exultant. The other, Ana, an adolescent, is scared, repentant and traumatized. Janis tries to encourage her while they move like sleepwalkers along the hospital corridors. The few words they exchange in these hours will create a very close link between the two, which by chance develops and complicates, and changes their lives in a decisive way.
‘Parallel Mothers’ represents both the Almodóvar that we are familiar with and love and the Almodóvar that we have hitherto not seen. On one hand, the story which the title refers to of two women who give birth almost simultaneously in a Madrid hospital is signature Almodóvar; on the other, the subject of the Spanish Civil War which bookends the film sees the filmmaker at his most political, confronting the shadow that the Spanish Civil War continues to cast on his country as well as his people’s psyche. Both are intriguing on their own, and the beauty is how Almodóvar has combined both tales into a poignant meditation on loss, grief and reconciliation.
Straddling both stories is successful magazine photographer Janis, played by seven-time Almodóvar collaborator Penelope Cruz. Janis is introduced at the start of the film shooting the handsome forensic anthropologist Arturo (Israel Elejalde) for an article; at the end of it, she approaches him for help to exhume the mass grave in her ancestors’ village where her grandfather’s body was buried. The couple also hook up soon after, and after a brief scene of quick, breathless sex, Janis is shown in hospital pregnant with his child. It is there she meets Ana (Milena Smit), a teenager whom she shares the maternity ward with.
Over the rest of the first two acts, Almodóvar lets the relationship between Janis and Ana take centre stage, as we follow them through friendship, love, deceit and resolve. To say too much would suck the fun out of navigating Almodóvar’s deceptively light narrative, but let’s just say that there are reversals, revelations, surprises and coincidences, including if the child whom Janis had brought home from hospital is indeed her daughter. It may sound like soap opera romp, but Almodóvar writes and directs the proceedings with his usual style, wit and feeling, creating a thoroughly engrossing drama tinged with comedy and even psycho-sexual elements.
The last act though returns the film back to the subject of the Civil War, bringing Arturo back to the forefront to finally commence the excavation which he had promised Janis. It is as much a bittersweet reunion for the couple, who had split after Arturo decided when Janis had given birth to stay with his wife battling cancer at that time, as much as it is a sobering reminder of the collective history which they are both a part of whether personally, professionally or culturally. Like we said, this is the first time that Almodóvar has directly addressed the trauma of Franco’s regime, and it is to his credit that he never feels the need to overstate the significance of that episode.
Holding it all together with grace, compassion and poise is Cruz, who slips effortlessly through various emotional registers over the twists and turns of the story. Cruz is arresting to watch as Janis, and for grounding the film from start to finish, has been deservedly rewarded with a Best Actress Oscar nomination this year. Just as excellent is relative newcomer Smit, who acquits herself well as Cruz’s complement, transforming from a fragile teenager into a confident mother through the vicissitudes of Almodóvar’s storytelling. Almodóvar fans will also be glad to see some of his other regular actresses in supporting parts, including Rossy de Palma and Julieta Serrano.
For being both vintage and newfound Almodóvar, ‘Parallel Mothers’ is riveting in its own right, and shows yet again how the veteran filmmaker is capable of evolving his craft in satisfying ways. All the touchstones of Almodóvar’s previous works are there, be it his focus (or some say fascination) on mothers, sudden twists of fate, or other stylistic touches such as the use of bright colours and a bristling, thriller-esque score (courtesy of composer Alberto Igelsias), and therefore the pleasures of sitting through a soaring melodrama. Even though the historical context won’t resonate as much as it would for his home audience, there is much to savour, revel and ponder about in his latest work of aching yet sublime beauty.
(There is both familiar and new in this riveting portrait of loss, grief and reconcilation from a still-masterful Almodovar)
Review by Gabriel Chong