By Greg Carlson
In “Parallel Mothers,” the excellent melodrama from master filmmaker Pedro Almodovar, Penelope Cruz’s Janis Martinez wears a Dior shirt emblazoned with the hopeful thought that “We should all be feminists.” Grouches might say the touch is too on-the-nose, but fans know it’s on-brand and heartfelt. The director, now in his early 70s, has built one of the great bodies of work over the past decades by making so many films that take a deep and curious interest in the lives of women.
When Taschen first published the Paul Duncan and Barbara Peiro-edited Almodovar addition to their massive Archives series, I thought, “Too soon!” This is an artist who still has some of his finest movies ahead of him. The volume has already been updated once. Taschen better prepare to do it again.
Cruz has forged a lasting partnership with Almodovar, and “Parallel Mothers” – their seventh movie together – is arguably the most satisfying collaboration. Janis is a successful photographer who lives in a signature Almodovar flat in Madrid: a perfectly-appointed dwelling adorned with vibrant objets d’art, bold splashes of color, and a gorgeous collection of glass vases, all situated within the mid-century modern aesthetic favored by the filmmaker.
But as attuned as he is to style, Almodovar appreciates and respects substance. While jaw-dropping twists of fate and unbelievable coincidences have provided highlights in many Almodovar movies, thematic expressions of powerful ideas keep us returning to the Pedroverse.
Almodovar makes it look easy. The opening of “Parallel Mothers” – without ever feeling truncated or rushed – rockets through weeks of backstory and exposition in minutes, explaining how Janis meets Arturo (Israel Elejalde), a forensic archeologist whose work for the Association for the Recovery of Historical Memory links him to Janis’s desire to exhume remains that could belong to her great-grandfather, who was killed by Franco loyalists. After a brief affair, Janis becomes pregnant. Making a decision that lays out one of the central motifs of the film, Janis informs the married Arturo that she will be raising the child on her own.
We meet Ana (Milena Smit) in the maternity unit of the hospital where Janis prepares for delivery. Ana is also pregnant, although her own circumstances are not as comfortable as the ones in which Janis operates. Ana’s pregnancy is the result of a sexual assault and her father has more or less disowned her.
As you may expect in a narrative of absent men, our protagonists become parallel mothers to newborn daughters. Ana will eventually go to work for Janis as a live-in nanny and their relationship will be intertwined in several surprising, even shocking, ways. Almodovar delights in exploring the generational gap between Ana and Janis, who is old enough to be Ana’s mom.
The strings of the partially Bernard Herrmann-influenced score by Almodovar regular Alberto Iglesias conjure up Hitchcockian intrigue and supply another element that invites the viewer to connect with “Parallel Mothers.” Almodovar frequently scrutinizes the ways in which the past interacts with and intrudes upon the present. His keen sense of pacing and timing can take on the contours favored by the Master of Suspense.
Underneath the mayhem, Hitchcock – like Almodovar – also understood that human reactions to extraordinary circumstances would be the point of intersection allowing audience members to identify with the characters in his films.
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