By Christopher Lloyd
Pedro Almodóvar’s movies are always interesting because he himself is so: a gay Spaniard iconoclast coming from a very macho culture whose films are nearly always primarily focused on women. In particular the theme of motherhood and women’s relationships with their children often figure as more important in his cinema than those they have with their lovers, which tend to be intense but fleeting.
His newest, “Parallel Mothers,” probably belongs in the minor works of his expansive oeuvre, but it’s still a compelling piece with a deliberately soap opera-esque feel.
Penelope Cruz and Milena Smit play two women who meet in the hospital as they’re about to have their babies. Other than being first-time mothers who share the circumstance that the father of their children is not in the picture, they couldn’t be more different — though they will find themselves bound by a precarious and sometimes cruel fate.
Janis (Cruz) is almost 40, a high-end photographer, fiercely independent and self-confident. She got pregnant by a married archaeologist, Arturo (Israel Elejalde), and decided to be a single mother — a circumstance she shared with her mother and grandmother.
Ana (Smit) is still a teenager whose pregnancy was unplanned (but not unwanted, despite traumatic circumstances). She’s meek and essentially an orphan, estranged by her enraged father and abandoned long ago by her mother, Teresa (Aitana Sánchez-Gijón), who wanted a career as an actress that is just now on the brink of taking off.
Ana lives with her mother, who possesses enough self-awareness to know having her daughter and grandchild around feels like a burden.
Both women have beautiful, healthy baby girls, bond with each other and vow to remain friends. But the frantic pace of rearing babies on their own — assisted by a small feminne circle of nannies, maids and friends — leads to them losing track for a few months.
We follow Janis (named after Joplin) and see how she’s faring. Despite a longing for Arturo, she insists they can’t be a couple while he’s still married. She’s still connected to him, though, by a project to exhume the suspected grave of her great-grandfather, one of many killed in the Spanish civil war of the 1930s.
As the last father figure in her family, and one who was snatched away suddenly — with his daughter’s baby rattle still clutched in his hand — my guess is Janis feels a need to restore her ancestor’s memory before she can let menfolk resume a stable place in her life.
She frets a little bit that her baby, Cecelia, is darker-skinned than either her or Arturo and doesn’t resemble either of them. Suspicions grow.
Janis and Ana eventually reconnect, and the latter has seen some changes. She’s matured, cut her hair, left her mother’s apartment and gotten a job. The strong link they had as new mothers is renewed… though something else about Ana’s situation has unexpectedly changed, as does the nature of their connection.
I won’t say more. I don’t necessarily think the machinations of Almodóvar’s plot are very hard to suss out; indeed, it’s their very predictability that gives the movie its odd sense of weight, the feeling of being bound together by unpredictable but unavoidable chance.
The music score, syrupy sweet string melodies by Alberto Iglesias, underscore the melodramatic aspects of the story. The cinematography by José Luis Alcaine is achingly bright and full of color, almost glaringly so.
Smit is a solid presence as Ana, but Cruz steals the show as Janis, an extremely empathetic figure: a strong woman who gradually allows herself to become vulnerable. She’s going on a journey that may end in great sadness or joy, or possibly periods of both, with her eyes wide open and her heart slowly opening up to either possibility.
“Parallel Mothers” is in a lot of ways like a soap opera, though I mean it in a good way. Life is episodic and filled with twists that bump us off the path we’d chosen, though sometimes where we land is a truer place than where we’d been headed, one where we can more fully become ourselves.