Pedro Almodóvar has made some radical and transgressive films in his time, but it’s fair to say that “Parallel Mothers” isn’t one of them. Not that that’s a complaint. The opening film at this year’s Venice Film Festival, “Parallel Mothers” offers many delights, one of which is that it ushers Almodóvar fans back to his comfortingly familiar milieu.
Once again, we get to settle into those stylish apartments and pavement cafes in sunny Madrid (the film is set between 2016 and 2018, so there’s not a face mask in sight); we get to admire the to-die-for furniture and the snazzy clothes which just happen to have some vibrant reds, blues, greens, and yellows; we get to hear Alberto Iglesias’s palpitating orchestral music as the plot twists and tightens; and we get to see a tousled Penélope Cruz acting up a storm, while looking superhumanly gorgeous: her flicking false eyelashes deserve an award of their own.
This is undoubtedly one of Almódovar’s breezier and more accessible domestic dramas. It was shot in and around Madrid in just one month this spring, and the most rebellious thing about the whole project is the poster’s image of a lactating nipple which upset the prudes at Instagram: the film itself is more discreet. But weighty concerns work their way into the story. And in the mean time, la casa de Almódovar is one of cinema’s most inviting places to be.
Cruz plays Janis — she was named after Janis Joplin by her hippy mother — a photographer who is first seen shooting a handsome forensic anthropologist, Arturo (Israel Elejalde) for a magazine spread. Afterwards she asks for his help. Her great grandfather was murdered and buried in a shallow grave by Falangists during the Spanish Civil War, and she hopes that he might be able to lead an excavation. Even while this serious discussion is going on, though, it’s clear that these two might have something else on their minds. That’s already been clear, since the photography scene gender-flipped the “Blowup”/“Austin Powers” dynamic between the seductive photographer and the willing model.
One vigorous sex scene later, Almódovar cuts to a large hospital sign: “Maternidad.” Arturo is nowhere to be seen. He’s a married man who doesn’t want a child, but Janis doesn’t care. She is excited to have a child at a point when she was afraid she had missed her chance. Her hospital roommate is less elated. Ana (Milena Smit) is an alienated teenager who no longer sees the father of her child, and doesn’t see much of her own father, either. Janis comforts her, and the new mothers bond while their daughters are under observation.
Yes, this is an Almódovar film in which two babies are born at the same time in the same hospital, before being whisked away and then returned shortly afterwards to two very different mothers. You may already have some inkling of what might have happened, and why it is that Janis’s best friend (Almódovar regular Rossy de Palma) comments that her daughter looks surprisingly “exotic.” Even Janis has her suspicions about her beloved baby Cecilia. But her relationship with Ana gets so complicated that she can’t decide what’s the best thing to do.
“Parallel Mothers’ won’t go down as one of Almódovar’s major works. The hoary plot is elegantly constructed, with a delicate balance of comedy and drama, but while it proves that the writer-director is still a consummate storyteller, viewers may be less gripped by what Janis is going through than amused by how Almódovar puts his own spin on ancient melodrama tropes. For one thing — and, again, this is hardly a complaint — the characters are such uniformly decent people that no one seems likely to threaten anyone else. Still, the film does have some substance and sincerity. To misquote an earlier Almódovar-Cruz title, his new film is all about mothers. In between the mix-ups and the secrets, it explores what motherhood means. Having a biological connection to a child is all very well, but how important is it compared to teaching them how to cut potatoes for a Spanish omelette?
As for the male part of the arrangement, Janis’s great-grandfather was separated from his wife and child by brute force, and his family has been haunted by his absence ever since. But in Janis and Ana’s experience, all fathers are either absent or irrelevant. Children are raised by mothers, with the help of female friends, lovers, au pairs, and childminders. If those women, such as Ana’s mother Teresa (Aitana Sánchez-Gijón), are more fulfilled by their careers than their children, they are chastised for it. Men, on the other hand, are almost nowhere to be seen. The slogan on Janis’s T-shirt, “We Should All Be Feminists,” could have been pinned above Almodóvar’s desk while he was writing the screenplay.
The theme of absent fathers becomes more profound and poignant toward the end of the film, when it returns to Janis’s great-grandfather, and the many thousands of Spanish men like him who became “the disappeared.” Perhaps this plot strand was ignored for a little too long, because it is jarring when it’s picked up again. But these scenes of rural Spanish life allow for a conclusion that is as moving as it’s satisfying. Indeed, the haunting final shot could be enough to tip the balance, and to reclassify “Parallel Mothers” as a major entry in the film-maker’s oeuvre, after all.
“Parallel Mothers” premiered at the 2021 Venice Film Festival. Sony Pictures Classics will release it in theaters on December 24.