Film Review – Parallel Mothers
Pedro Almodóvar is one of the few filmmakers in the world who can depict melodrama with such precise observation. Others would steer away from the genre, thinking it too schmaltzy or overdramatic. That is not the case with Almodóvar. His stories involve love, deception, sex, and unflinching honesty. His characters are fraught with emotional complexity – trying to find a place in a society that often casts them as outsiders or are torn between the past and the present. He toes the line between the beautiful and the obscene, blending the two to find something human. Almodóvar utilizes melodrama as a tool to explore the connections between people and how easily they can be broken or mended.
In his Spanish film Parallel Mothers (2021), Almodóvar once again relies on the skills of his long-time muse, Penélope Cruz. Cruz delivers one of her finest performances as a woman who tries to reconcile her past and the dreams she so longs to pursue. She plays Janis, a photographer whom – after an affair with archeologist Arturo (Israel Elejalde) – becomes pregnant. With middle age on the horizon, Janis looks forward to motherhood, even though Arturo has his reservations. During her labor, Janis gets assigned a hospital room with Ana (Milena Smit), a young woman also expecting her first child. Janis and Ana develop a friendship through mutual experience, and it is this connection that ignites the rest of the narrative.
While this might seem like a straightforward premise, in an Almodóvar film nothing is as it seems. His writing and direction are constantly throwing us for a loop – just as we have a handle on what to expect he throws in the unexpected. Soon after Janis gives birth, an underlying tension begins to build. The stress of being a single working mom takes a toll on her, she has trust issues with her child’s babysitter, and her on-again-off-again relationship with Arturo leaves her in a state of limbo. All the while there is Ana, going through her own personal turmoil. Although the two live separate lives they remain in touch, checking in on one another like a two-person support group.
Visually, Parallel Mothers continues the Almodóvar tradition of a bright and vibrant color palette. The frame is painted in vivid reds, blues, and greens – from the colors of apartments to the boldness of the costumes. Although this is not a musical, it has the look of one. The art direction and set design are heightened just enough to resemble the real world but at the same time feel otherworldly. My eyes kept getting drawn to the backgrounds. From bowls and silverware to paintings and furniture, everything has a glossy finish. José Luis Alcaine’s cinematography is stylized but unobtrusive. There are no flashy tricks – outside of the beginning and end credits the camera is mostly restrained. The frame holds characters in closeup, focusing on their faces during scenes of high dramatic conflict. The lush aesthetics work in contrast to the drama happening between the characters.
We see things primarily through Janis’ perspective and Cruz keeps us locked in with her performance. She is simply extraordinary in the role, exploring the depths of Janis’ psyche with bold directness. She is tasked to show a wide range of emotions, from happiness and fear to despair and hope. Cruz reaches every plateau assigned to her. Almodóvar’s dialogue has characters speaking plainly and bluntly, saying exactly what they are thinking without cutting any corners. Cruz expresses the words like any great actor would, feeling out the rhythms naturally and never missing a beat. Even when Janis is at her most desperate or lost, Cruz never stops being convincing. It’s one of the best performances of the year.
I’m being vague about the details because Almodóvar delivers several twists, altering nearly every relationship Janis has. Some may argue that these surprises are best suited for daytime soap operas or telenovelas, but Almodóvar retains the beating heart of the narrative. He takes what could be a contrived plot and uses it to reveal the inner workings of his characters. Janis is forced to confront the darker sides of her personality, to open herself with raw vulnerability. These lend to some of the most mesmerizing scenes, especially between Janis and Ana. Only a portion of us know what it feels like to become a mother and even fewer can experience that with someone at the same time. That is the basis for what happens between the two women, and the rollercoaster ride they share is utterly captivating.
All that I’ve said only scratches the surface of Parallel Mothers. Through Janis’ journey, Almodóvar touches on themes of familial legacy, Spanish history, and the secrets that keep people from accepting who they really are. Not once does he make a wrong move – not once did a moment feel false. Everything feels completely genuine, even when circumstances change at the drop of a hat. Like the best of Douglas Sirk, Almodóvar takes familiar dramatic devices and molds them with his vision, creating something fresh, exciting, and completely his own.