The geometry of filmmaker Pedro Almodóvar’s masterful, moving “Parallel Mothers,” which follows the stories of two women who give birth almost simultaneously in a Madrid hospital, is really a crisscrossing set of two fascinatingly entangled lines.
There’s one superficial similarity between the main characters: Both are unwed mothers. But Janis (Penélope Cruz) is a successful magazine photographer in her late 30s, made pregnant by Arturo (Israel Elejalde), a handsome, married forensic anthropologist she’s shooting for an article. And Ana (Milena Smit) is a slightly clueless teenager, still living with her well-off actress mother (Aitana Sánchez-Gijón), and pregnant after a gang rape.
Named after the singer Janis Joplin (who, like Janis’ own mother, died of an overdose at 27), Janis was raised in a small rural village by her grandmother, Cecilia, after whom she names her own baby, in a story that is packed with mothers, the ghosts of mothers and mother figures. (Rossy de Palma, a familiar face to followers of Almodóvar since 1987’s “Law of Desire,” appears as a maternal fashion editor and Janis’ best friend. “Parallel Mothers” would make a fine double feature with another recent film about motherhood and its discontents: “The Lost Daughter.”)
All this backstory of lineage and class is dispensed with quickly, almost too quickly. The main plot revolves around Janis and Ana, their daughters and a mishap that – alone in a story that otherwise reveals the writer-director to be at the top of his storytelling game – seems easily avoidable. Several months after giving birth, Janis and Ana reconnect, with Ana moving into Janis’ apartment as an au pair. Their relationship isn’t easily categorized and morphs from one thing to another over the course of the film: friends/peers; mentor/protege; rivals in motherhood; and even romantic partners.
But early on, Almodóvar also introduces a secondary, shadow narrative: one that does run parallel to the central story but mostly in the background. As the film opens, Janis has been trying to get permission to exhume the unmarked mass grave in her hometown where her great-grandfather and several others were executed by Fascists in 1936, in the early days of the Spanish Civil War. Janis enlists Arturo, whose expertise is in that field, to help navigate the bureaucracy, and if successful, oversee the disinterment and identification of bodies.
For much of “Mothers,” that subplot remains just that: in the background, with Almodóvar focusing on what would appear to be his complex – and, frankly, somewhat melodramatic – central subject. Relationships include the on-again, off-again dynamic between Janis and Arturo, whose wife has cancer. The two lead actresses deliver great performances here, particularly Cruz, who has never been better.
But toward the end of the film, as its more soapy plot elements resolve themselves and Arturo makes progress with authorization for the exhumation, that historical narrative swerves out of the shadows, suddenly, into the light.
Could this be Almodóvar’s true theme: Spain’s ugly past and its still-painful legacy? Political differences between Janis and Ana aren’t deeply addressed until a moment late in the movie’s third act, when Janis explodes with righteous anger after Ana makes a dismissive offhand comment, parroting her estranged, presumably right-wing father’s views about how it’s better to leave some histories buried.
“Parallel Mothers” is many things at once: a thriller about parentage, a meditation on motherhood. (Almodóvar makes his views known via a T-shirt Janis wears, reading “We should all be feminists.”) It speaks loudest, however, in moments without words at all, with an oblique approach that doesn’t exactly tackle the subject of the Spanish Civil War so much as tease it out of hiding, into the sun, with a story that touches the heart and teaches us about how a country’s present can only be understood by confronting its past.
“Parallel Mothers” ends with another explicit on-screen message from Almodóvar, this time in an epigram courtesy of Uruguayan journalist and author Eduardo Galeano, which neatly sums up this movie’s silent power: “No history is mute.”
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