I think I should start by saying that this movie, or rather its American distributor, has kind of been driving me insane for the last couple of months. Like a lot of people I first heard about the movie when it got glowing reviews out of Cannes. It was ultimately a bit overshadowed by other movies at that festival (namely another much different film involving automobiles) but as the year started to wind down critics started to rally around it… which left me in an awkward position as its distributor (Janus) opened the film in New York and L.A. way back in late November and announced a very leisurely expansion plan that did not seem to include my city at all. Then the critics really started falling in line on it. It won the top prize at the New York Film Critics’ Circle, the L.A. Film Critics’ Circle, and with the National Society of Film Critics; a truly rare trifecta and it was looking like I was going to miss out on it. On two different occasions I considered crossing state lines just to watch the damn thing. I considered flying out to L.A. over it in December, something I might have gone through with were it not for Covid and later I thought about driving to about four hours to see it elsewhere… even going so far as to make (refundable) hotel reservations over that plan, but then I finally got word that it would just be opening in my own city in late January and made plans to see it that way. To be fair, there have been movies with worse expansion plans this year (looking at you The Worst Person in the World and Petite Maman) but none have consumed my mind like this and I have worried (perhaps with good reason) that all this buildup was setting me up for a disappointment, but as I walked into that theater at long last I was just relieved to no longer have to worry about missing the damn thing.
Set in present day Japan, the film follows a theater director/actor named Yūsuke Kafuku (Hidetoshi Nishijima) who we meet in an extended prologue as being in a rather unconventional marriage with a wife Oto (Reika Kirishima) who is herself a storyteller working in experimental television. This all abruptly ends when he comes home to find her dead on the floor from a cerebral hemorrhage. We then flash forward a few years and Kafuku is no longer acting but continues to direct plays in his idiosyncratic multi-lingual style and has been hired to mount a production of Chekhov’s “Uncle Vanya” featuring a global cast for a theater festival in Hiroshima. Once there he’s informed that for some elaborate liability reason the festival be hiring a driver to transport him around the city in his 1990 Saab. He’s frustrated by this decision because part of his theater process is to practice his lines against a tape recordings his wife made of his lines but the driver, Misaki Watari (Tōko Miura) impresses him and he comes to accept the restriction. Something that would come to disturb him more is that one of the people who shows up to audition for the play is a younger actor named Kōji Takatsuki (Masaki Okada), who had worked with the director’s wife previously and who he had strong reason to believe may have been having an affair with her.
It is perhaps odd in retrospect that I anticipated seeing this movie as heavily as I really didn’t have that clear of a picture as to what it was or what to expect from it. The film was directed by a guy named Ryusuke Hamaguchi, who has gotten some good marks in festivals before but who has never really had a hit stateside even by arthouse foreign film standards. His previous film Asako I & II made all of $25,000 at the domestic box office having never played in more than two theaters. So I was basically blind to his work and had pretty aggressively avoided reading reviews of the film beyond knowing that a lot of people really really liked it. So I was actually kind of surprised when, once the film was finally playing in front of me, that it actually had a really straightforward visual style consisting of pretty basic digital photography in a realistic contemporary location. I certainly wouldn’t call the film ugly by any means, Hamaguchi blocks everything very professionally and has an eye for locations, but he’s definitely not showing off and is instead trying to keep audience focused on the characters and acting. If it reminded me of any recent arthouse film it might have actually been Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s Winter Sleep in that both are lengthy movies but ones that primarily consist putting you into the lives of characters and giving them lengthy conversations, but that movie had a lot more scenery and despite this film’s setting it never really feels like a stage play.
The film is based on a Haruki Murakami short story of the same name, but if the summery of that story I read is accurate it’s safe to say that Hamaguchi expanded on it quite a bit and changed things around a lot. Specifically he seems to have made the Kafuku character a bit more likable (his driving restrictions in the original story were DUI related) and made his beef with one of his wife’s ex-lovers a bit less central. The film also generally feels a bit more interested in Kafuku’s theater career and his unique process which involves actors from several different Asian countries speaking their native language on stage to each other with supertitles. I’m not precisely sure how this particular form of theater ties into the film’s larger themes of grief and guilt, but the fact that he’s an actor certainly seems to have been chosen based on the idea that everyone puts on a sort of façade to the outside world when they grieve. Also the film plays with the idea that actors may actually reveal more of themselves when on the stage than when they’re “acting” in real life. Then there are the rather interesting dynamics at play in the glimpses of Kafuku’s relationship with his wife that we get. His wife is not an actor, she’s a storyteller, so she was less skilled at hiding thing than he was but she also managed to intrigue him more and her storytelling is quite literally a part of their marriage dynamic. That said there still a lot of thematic material here I wasn’t quite able to parse on a first viewing: Misaki Watari character is a mystery for large stretches of the movie and there’s a focus on a Korean couple in the movie whose significance to the story is not entirely clear to me. Also the very last epilogue of the film is a real curveball, I have no idea what it means and in some ways it seems to have just been added as one last riddle for the audience.
I must say, I think the hype might have hurt this movie a little bit for me. Every award this movie won upped my expectations into some kind of unrealistic places. I ended up having to drive across a city to see the movie, if I had had to drive across half of a state to see it as I had been anticipating I might have to do it probably would not have been worth it. In a lot of ways this feels less like the kind of movie that would normally build this kind of consensus, it feels more like the kind of movie you’d want to discover and then champion from behind. It’s a lot more idiosyncratic than what we usually get from “breakout art house” movies, it’s not as visual in its focus and not as topical in its outlook and is more focused on intimate character interactions than you might expect from something with an epic length like this. I guess I was expecting something different… but maybe I only have myself to blame for that given that I didn’t actually read a lot of those rave reviews so much as I skimmed the headlines. Normally I do that in order to later make up my own mind about movies but in this case I maybe still formed expectations regardless. But even if this wasn’t quite the transcendent experience I was hoping for it is nonetheless one of the year’s better movies. Despite running three hours it never feels slow and instead keeps you consistently intrigued in where it’s going and how it’s going to go there.
**** out of Five
It’s so easy to take Pedro Almodóvar for granted. It’s kind of ridiculous that we do given that the man is like a modern day Fellini who walks among us, but despite the man’s overall reputation there’s a certain lack of due excitement whenever he actually puts out a movie… possibly just because the guy is so damn consistent. Film commenters kind of like their filmmakers to come with a certain amount of strife with career ups and career downs, they love a comeback or the love filmmakers who keep us waiting only to surprise with a new major statement. Someone like Almodóvar, who reliably puts out a good movie every two to three years, is maybe a bit harder to hype up, especially when he’s working in a place of relaxed confidence in his style like he has with his last handful of films. It also probably doesn’t help that Sony Pictures Classics keeps putting his movies out in the dead of winter in a quixotic attempt to capitalize on Academy Awards traction that may well not come when his movies tend to exist in the warmth of Spanish summers. His latest film, Parallel Mothers is a good example of just the kind of Almodóvar to be underestimated. It isn’t trying to show off some radical departure in style and it isn’t going to compete in the Best International Film category at the Oscars thanks to the fickle people responsible for submitting Spain’s contenders, but it’s classic Almodóvar nonetheless.
Parallel Mothers focuses on a successful photographer in her late thirties named Janis (Penélope Cruz) who meets a forensic archeologist named Arturo (Israel Elejalde) who she hopes will help with the excavation of a mass grave outside her hometown where she believes her grandfather was buried by the fascists during the Spanish Civil War. Arturo submits her case to the organization and the two start an affair which leaves Janis pregnant and with Arturo not ready to leave his ailing wife Janis decides to forget about him and have and raise the child on her own. While in the maternity ward Janis is roomates with a teenager named Ana (Milena Smit), who has recently returned from Granada to live with her Spanish mother by her judgmental father. After the two give birth to their daughters they exchange phone numbers and agree to act as contacts for each other before going their separate ways. Janis then resumes her life aided by a nanny and Ana continues to raise her child despite her own mother Teresa (Aitana Sánchez-Gijón) flaking out on her to indulge her own acting career. But soon these two mothers will have their paths cross again for reasons that will affect both of them.
Historically Pedro Almodóvar’s films have been a balancing act between comical farce, sexual provocation, and unashamed melodrama. In broad strokes his earlier films skew closer to farce and provocation while his later films tend to be a bit more reserved explorations into melodrama but there are exceptions on both ends and his most celebrated movies tend to be the ones that can combine all three of these elements into a delicious stew. His previous two films (the Alice Munro adaptation Julieta and the autobiographical Pain and Glory) did generally fit into the trend of more reserved late period Almodóvar and for the most part Parallel Mothers does as well. The film lacks some of the more outlandish elements of some of Almodóvar’s more comical efforts; outside of it’s melodramatic central conceit the film more or less takes place in a recognizable if slightly stylized version of reality. Note also that when talking about Almodóvar’s films “melodramatic” is decidedly not a pejorative, it’s just kind of something lined into the fabric of his style and sort of slightly heightened worlds he creates tend to make melodrama fit in and not really feel like melodrama.
Central to Parallel Mothers is of course the relationship between Janis and Ana, two women united by the common experience of having children on the same day while otherwise being people who are of much different ages and having children under much different circumstances. Almodóvar has of course worked with Penélope Cruz several times in the past and is a major muse for the filmmaker throughout the second half of his career and she’s up to her usual high standards here despite being almost a decade older than her character is theoretically supposed to be. Milena Smit is, however, a newcomer to Almodóvar’s roster and aquits herself quite well playing a rather tricky character who changes a lot over the course of the film and has some fairly emotionally charged scenes. I’ve rather carefully talked around some of the surprises the film has up its sleeve as any good melodrama does, but I will say that the film’s central theme is that of secrecy and the extent to which keeping things buried (literally and metaphorically) can cause damage to everyone involved. The film is a touch awkward in the way that it uses the sub-plot about Janis trying to uncover her family’s Spanish Civil War experiences as a parallel to this thing as it’s something the film only brings up intermittedly and really starts to dominate it in its final hours in a way that doesn’t feel entirely earned. Still this is another winner from one of the most important figures in contemporary world cinema.
**** out of Five