Bear with me as I indulge for a few minutes in the cinema of Pedro Almodóvar. His camerawork, his characters, the locations. These aspects and more inform the dynamic realism that his films portray. Madres Paralelas (Parallel Mothers) continues that tradition in a dramatic look at motherhood, the past, present and, future, and the bonds that tie, albeit loosely.
By in large, color informs the feelings. Emotions subliminally affect the viewer. José Luis Alcaine’s cinematography brilliantly captures the visual emotion coupled with the characters’ body language. The brightly painted walls serve as a background for the characters in motion. Through the dialogue, Almodóvar melds the three together in harmony.
Penélope Cruz plays Janis Martinez, a single, happy-go-lucky individual. A fashion photographer by trade has a good eye, and whether Almodóvar’s script explicitly states it, we know she has an even better vision for the human condition.
The film’s crux focuses on the past, a reflection of who Janis is today. She is forthright and determined, and Cruz stands pat on these traits to perfection. The first act is where we meet Arturo (Israel Elejalde), someone who can help her, her family, and her town heal from a deep wound from the past toward the future.
Elejade plays a distinguished character, and you wouldn’t expect that he’d wear his heart on his sleeve, but he does; Almodóvar plays this slowly. It adds a social context to Arturo and his ongoing personal and professional relationship with Janis. However, this story isn’t as concerned with this romantic relationship as it is a springboard to other events.
Almodóvar and Cruz start from a place of singularity, and slowly Janis builds toward family, persisting in a feeling of togetherness; it is omnipresent throughout the film. It lingers dramatically and lovingly, an extension of Janis’ love for her relatives. Janis becomes pregnant. She doesn’t mind that she will give birth at her age; she welcomes it. Nearing her term, Janis meets Ana (Milena Smit), an adolescent ready to give birth. It’s amazing what two people can accomplish in a closed space.
Cruz and Smit are electric on the screen; the age difference between the characters does not detract from the unfolding drama. Where Almodóvar succeeds with these characters is through the journeys each character took to get to this point. Ana is scared of being a mother, of having a disinterested and broken set of parents. Ana’s mother can seem overbearing at times.
Ana’s future is also explored. Janis’ life experiences influence the character through the earlier parts of the story and mainly as a character: she’s established, is a success, and, like her family before, is ready to take care of a child on her own. Almodóvar’s exploration of the two life paths these characters have taken is an interesting aspect that isn’t as explored as entirely as it could have been, partly owing to the situations that follow and partly because the two women come from different generations, different beliefs.
These elements do parallel each other, tradition, and future following form. The intensity with which Almodóvar, Cruz, and Smit approach the film and the respective characters are not often explored in American cinema, at least not to the detail and emotional level that Almodóvar achieves in Parallel Mothers.
Parallel Mothers paints the characters as salmon returning to the river where they were born to spawn; both Janis and Ana are acutely aware of this need. Almodóvar introduces a twist, pulling the characters apart and eventually bringing them together naturally. These moments are where Cruz, who won the Volpi Cup for Best Actress at the 78th Venice Film Festival, demonstrates the power of the story. Even if the twist doesn’t entirely work, the story doesn’t shy away from itself, and Cruz avails herself of the opportunity.
Parallel Mothers stays its course in a way that we’ve come to expect from Almodóvar. The intrinsic nature he approaches his story, the connection we have to one another, to our past, and what drives us toward our future that the movie works as it does.
Written and Directed by Pedro Almodóvar
Starring Penélope Cruz, Milena Smit, Israel Elejalde, Aitana Sánchez-Gijón, Rossy de Palma, Julieta Serrano
R, 123 minutes, Sony Pictures Classics