In Parallel Mothers, writer-director Pedro Almodóvar spins a twisty tale of motherhood, identity, and family amid a historical reckoning.
The closing night film of New York Film Festival 59, Parallel Mothers reunites Almodóvar with frequent collaborator Penélope Cruz (Pain and Glory). Her moving performance as a first-time mother in her forties meets its match in Milena Smit (Cross the Line), playing a young woman whose own child infuses her with an unexpected wave of maturity.
The two meet at a Madrid hospital as maternity ward roommates, each delivering their daughters without their children’s fathers present.
Cruz’s Janis, a professional photographer who never knew her father, is already prepared to go it alone. She broke off the relationship with her baby’s father, Arturo (Israel Elejalde, Amador), a married forensic anthropologist.
Smit’s Ana, a rural teen, became pregnant under more complicated circumstances and is still uncomfortable with the thought of motherhood. Her own mother, Teresa (Aitana Sánchez-Gijón, Velvet), an actress, admits she has trouble with that to this day.
The new mothers’ bond strengthens once both of their baby girls need observation for medical issues. The women agree to keep in touch once they go home. To say more about how they connect and interact would spoil the melodramatic surprises that Almodóvar has in store. Suffice it to say that their lives aren’t parallel as much as intertwined.
The script drops some wry lines about motherhood and womanhood, both through Teresa and Janis. Hearing her baby had trouble breathing outside the uterus, for instance, Janis observes that the little girl’s whole life will involve adapting to being on the outside.
While the mothers’ intertwined story branches into wild directions, Almodóvar (All About My Mother, Volver) maintains a serious tone. Janis and Arturo initially hooked up after she asked him to help excavate an unmarked mass grave in her hometown. Falangists during the 1930s killed and buried her great-grandfather and others there. Though the film is light on that era’s turmoil and politics, Arturo’s involvement touches on Spain’s grassroots efforts of recent years to give these victims proper burials.
The past and its wounds need to be addressed, and the truth brought to light, Janis passionately explains to Ana at one point. Some viewers might think she all-too-quickly heeds her own advice—and that Janis too swiftly forgives her. Yet in resolving the women’s drama along with the deeper historical one, Parallel Mothers makes us ponder just what motherhood and family entail.