Review: ‘Parallel Mothers,’ with a superb Penélope Cruz, is Pedro Almodóvar at his best

Two women embrace in the movie "Parallel Mothers."
Milena Smit, left, and Penélope Cruz are the “Parallel Mothers” in Pedro Almodóvar’s new film.
(Iglesias Más / Sony Pictures Classics)

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In the opening moments of Pedro Almodóvar’s “Parallel Mothers,” a Madrid woman named Janis (Penélope Cruz) files a request to open a mass grave, sleeps with a hunky anthropologist and — cut to nine months later — gives birth to a baby girl. Almodóvar has never been afraid to throw a lot at his viewers, and this summary might at first suggest an incongruous narrative exercise, a reckless mix of genteel absurdity and historical gravity. But there is nothing remotely strained about what we see; the director, well into his late-period mastery at 72, now slips so nimbly among different emotional registers that you may wonder if there is even much of a difference. Everything here is connected and the story flows and flows, achieving a breathless momentum that reveals its intricate design only in retrospect.

Almodóvar, who once delighted in playing the wickedly transgressive artist and reliable offender of bourgeois sensibilities, now invites a more reflective kind of outrage. That mass grave, Janis explains early on, contains the physical remains of several men from her home village (including her great-grandfather) who were executed by the Franco regime in July 1936, during the early days of the Spanish Civil War. The anthropologist, Arturo (Israel Elejalde), is guiding her past the bureaucratic hurdles of the exhumation process. As for the baby, she’s a happy surprise and the first of many — a reminder that even a plot shrouded in so much death can hold out the possibility of new life.


The arrival of Janis’ daughter, Cecilia, sets its own dizzying array of possibilities in motion. On the day she goes into labor, Janis finds herself sharing a delivery room with a sensitive, sad-eyed teenager named Ana (Milena Smit, excellent). The women bond over their shared experience; both give birth to daughters on the same day, and in both cases the child’s father isn’t in the picture. This will turn out to be a running theme. Ana’s own father, never seen, treats her as an annoyance and her pregnancy as a burden. Her mother, Teresa (Aitana Sánchez-Gijón), provides a roof over Ana’s head but is too busy with her thriving acting career to give her the emotional support she needs.

Teresa is all too painfully aware of her failures as a mother, but Almodóvar refuses to judge her too harshly, which would hardly suit his warm, forgiving temperament. He has a thing for actresses, for one, and a compassionate eye for mothers (and daughters) of all stripes. It’s typical of his generosity that he makes room for Teresa to tell her story in her own words. More generous still, he lets Ana, despite her experiences with parental neglect, find her own unexpected fulfillment in early motherhood. Her infant daughter, Anita, proves as much a joy to her as little Cecilia is to Janis.

Two pregnant women stand in a hospital corridor, wearing smocks.
Milena Smit, left, and Penélope Cruz in the movie “Parallel Mothers.”
(Iglesias Mas / Sony Pictures Classics)

But it is Janis who gives this melodrama its soaring, aching heart, and at every moment she exudes a radiance that is both bracingly down-to-earth and positively otherworldly. Cruz, whose performance has won accolades from the jury of the Venice International Film Festival and, earlier this month, the Los Angeles Film Critics Assn., is as complex and captivating a screen heroine here as she was in “Volver,” until now the apex of her long and rewarding collaboration with Almodóvar. In “Parallel Mothers,” she finds herself at the heart of a sobering history lesson, a passionate love story and, not for the first time, a glowing celebration of motherhood.

Janis is also the lead sleuth in what turns out to be a historical and genealogical detective story, as signaled by the bristling, thriller-esque touches in Alberto Iglesias’ exquisitely moving score. It’s significant that Janis works as a freelance photographer and that for much of this movie her eyes are ours. We spend a lot of time peering through her camera lens, sometimes at designer belts and purses for sale, sometimes at faces and bodies that will grace magazine covers. Before long, Janis’ gaze will fixate on altogether more troubling things, whether an unexpected visitor or a document full of explosive secrets.

Those secrets are worth discovering for yourself. At the same time, Almodóvar is not overly invested in pulling the rug out from under his audience. From time to time he’ll tease some of his own revelations, as if to suggest — with a wisdom that more writers, directors and studio marketers should heed — that every good narrative shock is a means to an emotional and thematic end, not an end in itself. You may have a sense of where “Parallel Mothers” is headed early on, though you’d be hard-pressed to guess what’s in store once it arrives. Suffice to say that while fate and coincidence play as potent a role as ever in Almodóvar’s work, it’s how his characters handle the surprises they’re dealt, more so than the surprises themselves, that gives this story its shattering emotional force.


Like any Almodóvar heroine worth her salt, Janis can be irritable, selfish and magnificently unruly, qualities that make her relatable and interesting. But Cruz has a rare ability to make goodness compelling, and Janis is never more magnetic than when we see her extending decency and kindness to the women around her: to a guilt-ridden Teresa and, most of all, to Ana, who soon becomes a regular in Janis’ apartment. Here, amid delectable culinary interludes and gorgeous backsplash tiles, Almodóvar sets a cozy domestic scene in which the women’s ever-deepening friendship is balanced by a steadily mounting tension.

Penélope Cruz in “Parallel Mothers.”
Penélope Cruz in the movie “Parallel Mothers.”
(Iglesias Más)

Some of that tension is emotional; some of it is generational. Despite their differences in age, outlook and experience, Janis and Ana are united by what one character calls “maternal instinct,” but as Almodóvar and his splendid actors make clear, that instinct has an infinite variety of manifestations. There is something faintly (though not exclusively) maternal about the protective guidance that Janis gives Ana. And even at its twistiest, the melodrama never loses its grounding in the everyday mundanities of child rearing: the logistics of cribs and playmats, baby monitors and changing tables. “Parallel Mothers” would make an especially rich double bill with Maggie Gyllenhaal’s fierce and perceptive “The Lost Daughter,” another portrait of women who, like Janis and Ana, must negotiate the demands of work and motherhood.

And it would, of course, fit snugly next to any number of Cruz-Almodóvar classics, including “Volver,” “Pain & Glory” (in which Cruz played a fictionalized stand-in for the director’s mom) and, supremely, “All About My Mother.” All of which runs the risk of making “Parallel Mothers” sound unimaginative or repetitive, as if it were possible to tire of the bright, ravishing colors of José Luis Alcaine’s cinematography and Antxon Gómez’s production design. Or, for that matter, of splendid Almodóvar regulars like Rossy de Palma, who pops up here as Janis’ best friend, and Julieta Serrano, who has a brief role as one of the many grieving women from Janis’ pueblo.

The image of the pueblo itself looms large over Almodóvar’s work, an ever-resonant reminder of his childhood and of the women who turned huts and caves into a community. But this is the first time the filmmaker has directly confronted the unhealed trauma of the Spanish Civil War — a subject that, as Janis points out, is still greeted with widespread ignorance and discomfort, as well as ire from right-wing Spaniards who would prefer that the past stay conveniently buried. In one key subplot, we learn that Teresa has landed the lead role in a production of “Doña Rosita the Spinster,” one of the last plays Federico García Lorca wrote before he was assassinated in 1936.

Almodóvar doesn’t belabor the reference or its tragic significance; a viewer could easily miss it, which strikes me as part of his point. But the genius of “Parallel Mothers” lies in the way it gathers up so many of its maker’s preoccupations — the heroic fortitude of women, the tragic absence of men — and rewires them in an unexpected and entirely necessary direction. It finds Almodóvar doing something new by doing what he has always done well: finding grace and beauty amid suffering, and keeping memory alive.


‘Parallel Mothers’

In Spanish with English subtitles

Rated: R, for some sexuality

Playing: Starts Dec. 24 at the Landmark, West Los Angeles