By Noah Gittell
Spanish filmmaker Pedro Almodóvar and actress Penelope Cruz comprise one of the most fruitful creative partnerships of our time. They’ve made seven movies together, some of which are great and none of which are bad.
“Parallel Mothers,” their latest endeavor, comes close to greatness, but even when it doesn’t work, Almodóvar and Cruz bring out the best in each other. As a woman struggling to balance her maternal instincts with her sense of justice, the acclaimed actress gives a thoughtful, nuanced performance that wrestles admirably with sensitive ideas. It’s no surprise it has earned her another Oscar nomination.
A taut drama and treatise on modern womanhood, “Parallel Mothers” is told through the eyes of Janis (Cruz), a sought-after professional photographer who falls into an affair with Arturo (Israel Elejalde), a married government scientist. When she becomes pregnant, she makes the difficult decision to cut ties and raise the baby alone. Then there’s Ana (Milena Smit), a teenager also set to be a single mom, whom Janis meets in the hospital. Her story unfolds more gradually, but she and Janis bond over their shared predicaments and promise to stay in touch. Neither could imagine how their lives will continue to intersect. The title is really a bait-and-switch. Their tracks aren’t parallel but on a collision course that leads to unthinkable decisions.
As a woman fighting a lonely battle with herself, Cruz is spectacular, refusing to make Janis either overtly likable or easy to condemn. With no one to lean on for support, Janis faces them in heroic fashion, with equal parts courage and vulnerability. It’s no easy feat. The choices Janis makes in “Parallel Mothers” violate some of our culture’s steepest taboos, but Cruz’s blend of charisma and unflinching honesty, cultivated by Almodóvar’s unerring gaze, makes her decisions seem reasonable, understandable, and, most importantly, authentic.
In earning our sympathies, it helps that Janis is fundamentally alone with her problems, even as she is surrounded by people. Almodóvar regular Rossey de Palma shows up as a magazine editor who Janis can count on for the necessities of support but, due to her professional obligations, is unable to be emotionally present. There’s also a deep roster of maids and au pairs who circle the story but stay on the periphery of Janis’s life. She has her secrets, after all, and they keep her at a distance from those with whom she shares her life. At least she has us.
As it navigates the twists and turns of its screenplay, “Parallel Mothers” forms a rich tapestry of independent women with their own unique flaws and virtues who support each other in non-traditional ways. Yes, it’s another celebratory story of chosen families from Almodóvar, who as a gay artist emerging from La Movida Madrileña, a movement of countercultural artists that grew from the country’s transition to democracy in the 1970s, is always keen to subvert domesticity and other patriarchal conventions.
When it sticks to character, it’s a fascinating human drama with Almodóvar nimbly moving between subplots, and the eclectic, Oscar-nominated score by Alberto Iglesia creating a lively atmosphere full of intrigue and mystery. But the director tacks on one intrigue too many. Janis first becomes involved with Arturo, a forensic archeologist, in her efforts to exhume a mass grave in her village, where she believes her grandfather, and other townspeople killed by the state, were buried. Her efforts to solve this ancestral mystery are rigorously documented — we meet other people from her hometown seeking the same bit of closure – and while Almodóvar’s passion for the issue is deeply felt, it always feels like a digression from the real story, a bit of politics superimposed onto an otherwise personal story. To his credit, he builds visual and thematic connections between the two tracks, but he never connects them dramatically, and the film suffers for it.
Perhaps these connections are inborn in those viewers who loved through it. Almodóvar seems to make films for Spain first, despite the success his work has found in America, and it’s certainly possible that the disjointed ideas of “Parallel Mothers” feel more cohesive for those in his home country. For me, it’s a big swing that comes up slightly short.
“Parallel Mothers” is now streaming.