Anyone who has followed the filmmaking career of Pedro Almodovar understands his tendency to veer into the realm of soap opera. But beneath this sheer of simplicity in which people revolve in and out love, his films also strike at honest truths.
His latest film, Parallel Mothers, follows much of the same formula. On the surface, it’s a film about uneasy motherhood and Penelope Cruz having relations with both a married archaeologist and the young mother who shares the maternity ward with her. But beneath that somewhat tawdry veneer, Parallel Mothers tries to grasp something deeper about genetics and the invisible pull that the dead hold over the living. It’s an incongruous balancing act that seems impossible, but Almodovar makes it work.
In a well defined performance, Cruz plays Janis (named after Janis Joplin). After getting pregnant, she shares a hospital room with young Ana (Milena Smit) and the two bond, perhaps even more so after their babies are quickly taken from them for observation due to health issues immediately after their birth.
The two exchange numbers, but lose touch. What begins as lighthearted friendship ends before it even begins. The film focuses on Janis for a bit as she adjusts her once busy photographer’s life to that of a single parent juggling most of the responsibilities, especially because the child’s father, Arturo (Israel Elejalde), disowns the baby on first meeting him due to his not feeling a connection to her. This sends Janis down exploratory avenues, conducting genetic tests and receiving some surprising results.
In typical Almodovar splicing of time, a single cut jumps long periods of time when Janis and Ana meet again. But Ana’s experience in motherhood has been just as devastating and she informs Janis of some terrible news about her baby. The two become close again and begin a relationship, partly out of guilt on Janis’ part and mostly because Ana seems to be scarred by life and her uncaring family support system.
From there, Parallel Mothers becomes a delicate character study. Will Janis reveal what she knows to Ana about their past? Will it turn into a legal thriller for personal rights? No, Almodovar throws us another curve ball and positions the family drama on the back burner while the film explores the project that introduced Janis and Arturo in the opening scene- the locating and excavating of a mass grace that will finally unearth the resting place of those in her family massacred by the Lebanese Phalange Party in the 40’s. Essentially, Parallel Mothers exchanges the personal apocalypse for the national one.
While not as completely enveloping as some of Almodovar’s past films, Parallel Mothers does earn its keep by maneuvering through a range of emotions keenly. Where it begins is drastically different from where it ends, and Cruz gives a tactile performance of a woman steadfastly managing to account for the bones of people both still alive and long lost, no matter the personal cost.
Parallel Mothers opens in limited release in the Dallas/Fort Worth area on Friday January 15th.