Spanish filmmaker Pedro Almodóvar returns to two of his favorite muses—actress Penélope Cruz and the icon that is motherhood—in his newest domestic drama. Repressing as much of the camp, the melodrama and the op-art wallpaper of his earlier cult classics as he can (meaning: not entirely), Almodóvar delivers a surprisingly down-to-earth outing that mixes the freewheeling, coincidence-driven soap opera of his early works (Labyrinth of Passion; Tie Me Up, Tie Me Down) with the more mature, deeply personal drama of his later outings (All About My Mother, Bad Education).
Parallel Mothers starts by introducing us to Janis (Cruz), a trendy Madrid-based photographer who finds herself working on a magazine profile of a forensic archaeologist named Arturo (Israel Elijalde). As it just so happens, Janis’s great-grandfather “disappeared” in the wake of the Spanish Civil War under the brutal Franco regime. Local legend has it he was buried in a mass grave in the family’s hometown, and Janis gets the idea that Arturo might be able help set the historical record straight. In the course of their interaction, however, Janis and Arturo end up sleeping together. No big deal. They’re both adults. But the unanticipated end result of this affair of passion is that Janis is impregnated.
An adult with a good income and a solid head on her shoulders, Janis decides to go ahead with the birth on her own. Why not? While in the hospital, Janis crosses paths with Ana (Milena Smit), a teenage girl who got pregnant in high school. The two mothers share a room in the maternity ward and give birth on the same day.
Needless to say, the paths of these titular “parallel mothers”—one a confident and mature 40-year-old, the other a scared and naive 19-year-old—are now firmly intertwined. Spelling out precisely what happens would almost certainly steal some of the surprise from Almodovar’s unpredictable narrative. As the film goes on, Janis unearths a dark secret, makes a questionable decision and finds her life tied tighter and tighter (and still tighter) to Ana’s.
Parallel Mothers is among Almodóvar’s more grounded efforts. There are hints of melodrama, moments of wacky coincidence and just a smattering of lighthearted moments. But this one’s more of a straightforward kitchen-sink drama, albeit one that revolves almost entirely around kitchen sinks in fabulously decorated European apartments. After seven films together, Almodovar and Cruz can more or less finish each other’s sentences. Here the director intimately understands the character, range and appeal of his lead actor and crafts a role for her that fits like a glove. Newcomer Smit, meanwhile, rises to the occasion, serving as a more-than-credible co-star to Cruz.
As the film slowly ties up its messy, emotional frayed ends, it manages to wrap the film into a tidy knot, circling back to the dark and seemingly unconnected opening setup about mass murder in the Spanish Civil War. Although the entire film has been about the sacrifices of motherhood, the film’s somber coda brings back the idea of missing fathers. Spain lost a lot of fathers, brothers and uncles under Franco, and this generational loss still has repercussions among today’s Spanish families. It’s one of the rare times that Almodóvar has talked about fathers in his films and it gives Parallel Mothers an unexpected weight.
Parallel Mothers, Directed by Pedro Almodóvar, starring Penélope Cruz, Milena Smit, Rossy de Palma, Israel Elijalde. Opening in theaters Friday, Jan. 28.