Since the late 1970s, filmmaking auteur Pedro Almodovar has received praise from critics and
audiences in his home country of Spain as well as in North America, first breaking through
stateside with Women On The Verge Of A Nervous Breakdown in 1988, then again with All
About My Mother in 1999, as well as Talk To Her, for which he won the Best Foreign Language
Film Academy Award in 2003. Almodovar seeks to receive similar acclaim this awards season
in Parallel Mothers, where he reunites himself with one of his favorite actresses, Penelope Cruz,
while introducing relative newcomer Milena Smit. The result of this collaboration is a solid
melodrama full of great, nuanced performances from the two leads and Almodovar’s stylish
direction, which is enough to keep audiences engaged from beginning to end.
The two mothers at the center of Parallel Mothers are Janis (Cruz) and Ana (Smit), and the two
couldn’t be more different. Janis is a product photographer who one day has a forensic
anthropologist named Arturo (Israel Elejalde) as her subject. The two hit it off on the shoot so
well, that not only does Janis ask Arturo for assistance in excavating a mass grave supposedly
encasing the remains of her great-grandfather who was killed by a fascist regime during the
Spanish Civil War, but they also have a steamy affair that ends in a night of intercourse, which
results in Janis’ accidental pregnancy.
Flash forward to nine months later, she and Ana coincidentally share the same hospital room,
where Ana confides her fears and anxieties about being a teenage mother, to which Janis
responds with understanding and comfort. From there, a friendship is forged between the two in
the moments leading up to their going into labor. After Janis and Ana deliver their children, they
stay in touch and go their separate ways, but it’s not too long into the film and their forays into
motherhood that their paths intertwine again after a series of shocking revelations.
To go even further would risk ruining the trip Parallel Mothers takes audiences on during its two-
hour runtime, but the journey is captivating thanks to the strength of the film’s two leads. In her
seventh collaboration with Almodovar, Penelope Cruz delivers a powerful performance worthy
of awards consideration. As Janis, she takes care of baby Cecelia with the empathy and
sweetness that comes with motherhood, and crushing viewers with her facial expressions when
a surprising plot development leaves her resigned in devastating confusion. Concurrently, Smit
holds her own as Ana, showing the pain of giving birth with raw anxiety and strength, as well as
fond admiration for Janis when they unexpectedly reconnect at a restaurant at which she works.
Almodovar’s direction also amplifies the emotion of Cruz and Smit’s respective performances in
both a visual and aural sense. Almodovar’s signature use of color and set design conveys each
woman’s pursuits lyrically, from the lime green walls of Janis’ house being the same color as
those of her hospital room to signify motherhood to the tapestry on the wall of Smit’s house that
conveys her mother’s selfish, inner desire for stardom during her pursuit as an actress. On the
aspect of sound design, Alberto Iglesias’ orchestral score full of sweeping violins and low
woodwinds provoke intrigue from the audience with a melodramatic sound, while underscoring
the nuances of the storytelling and performances on-screen.
As striking as Parallel Mothers is visually, it’s sadly hampered by a disjointed story structure.
The subplot involving Janis and Arturo planning an exhumation of a mass grave containing the
remains of her great-grandfather bookends the movie to make a point about how a single
tragedy can connect families regardless of generation, but the script only returns to this
sporadically throughout the movie, making Almodovar’s newest thesis end with an interesting
image, but on a hollow note devoid of emotional power. It’s also worth noting that the story’s
major revelations are revealed relatively early on in the story, which causes the film to drag on
for a period until the inevitable confrontation. That being said, the film’s ending may pack more
of a punch for those more versed in the timeline of Almodovar’s personal life and filmography.
Meanwhile, general audiences will find that Parallel Mothers is best when the focus is on Janis
and Ana, because the film celebrates women and mothers for everything they do, from
preparing beautiful-looking meals and preaching empathy to giving their children life and
teaching them about their family lineage, even the tragic stories within it. In Almodovar’s mind,
being a mother is the best feeling any woman can have despite the stresses that come with the
position, and his characters are aware of this as well, as it makes up the emotional core of their
respective journeys down the film’s twists and turns. It’s a very relatable and universal idea, and
that’s why open-minded audiences should check out Parallel Mothers this holiday season.