“You have to look to the future, otherwise you’ll just open old wounds.”
To have a muse like Penélope Cruz is a lucky place to find yourself if you’re Pedro Almodóvar. And if you’re Cruz, it’s a lucky place to find yourself in working with such a genius filmmaker as Almodóvar. One after another, this duo continues to produce beautiful films together—their last collaboration being pre-pandemic’s 2019, Pain and Glory, alongside Antonio Banderas. Almodóvar’s ability to tell female driven films with such realistic characters, and with such vulnerability, is a unique talent, and Parallel Mothers finds itself on that same list of miraculous filmmaking.
This time around Cruz plays Janis, a talented photographer, looking to find the last resting place of her great-great-grandfather who was killed during the Spanish Civil War during the late 1930s. She enlists the help of a forensic anthropologist named Arturo, to unearth where she believes her great-great-grandfather, as well as many more people, are buried in an unmarked grave. The relationship, and affair, between Janis and Arturo is glossed over. At the end of their “meeting” for the first time, you’re transported nine months into the future, seeing Janis pregnant in the hospital. Once Janis has her baby, and we meet Arturo again, Almodóvar takes us back to when Janis first told Arturo about being pregnant. “I love the idea of having a child with you,” Arturo says, “but I don’t know if I can allow myself that now.” Janis, in that moment, like her mother and grandmother before her, decides to become a single mother, thus dissolving her relationship with Arturo.
While in the maternity ward, Janis meets the crucial player to the story, Anna (Milena Smit). Anna is a teenage mother who, unlike Janis, believes that this baby is a mistake. The two women create a special bond between one another in their shared room—offering each other their numbers so they can keep in touch after they go home to the “real world.” The tragic events that befall each woman—in only a matter of months after leaving the hospital—eventually causes their paths to cross once again. The veteran Cruz and newly found Smit are perfection. Their bond, though complicated and complex, is organic by any definition of the word. Janis and Ana both want a family, and will achieve that through any means possible—having been void of that opportunity in their childhood. But Cruz and Smit handle these characters with such care, embrace them. No longer was I watching the actresses on screen, I only saw Janis and Ana.
I know I don’t need to say it, as it’s plain to see, but Almodóvar is a talented writer. Not only does he weave the story of the two mothers within the pages of his script, but there’s also another story at play, dare I say a more important story. Mostly during the beginning and the end of the film, do we find Janis in her quest to find the resting place of her great-great-grandfather. Almodóvar highlights the atrocities of the Spanish Civil War in a brief but striking display. If Janis is the heroine actively searching for those figures of her past, Ana is her polar opposite. Ana has no connection to the history that surrounds her. Janis’ story of finding the missing bodies of the war, and her eager participation in that, is a direct dichotomy to her own personal trauma and the secrets she prohibits others from unearthing in her own life.
I have yet to shake Parallel Mothers from my psyche, and would probably have delivered this review earlier had it not been for my avid research on the topics on the film, which hardly happens to me. After watching the film I was left wanting more, but not in that negative cliché that critics often say in their bad reviews. No, I want more stories like this. I want to know more about the topics I absorbed. I want more brilliant female driven dramas. I want more Cruz. I want more Smit. I want more Almodóvar.
Written and Directed by: Pedro Almodóvar
Starring: Penélope Cruz, Milena Smit, Aitana Sánchez-Gijón, Israel Elejalde, and Rossy de Palma