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