Penélope Cruz in Pedro Almodóvar’s ‘Parallel Mothers’ (‘Madres Paralelas’): Film Review | Venice 2021

The paths of two women cross in a maternity ward and remain intertwined, as traumas of past and present are unearthed in the Spanish auteur’s sumptuous melodrama.

After presenting a gift to Antonio Banderas with his transcendent role in Pain and Glory, Pedro Almodóvar reaffirms his status as the most munificent of directors with a part of corresponding complexity for another faithful member of his recurring acting stable, Penélope Cruz. As its title suggests, Parallel Mothers is an examination of the maternal instinct, a theme central to so much of the great Spanish director’s filmography. Likewise, the complicated comforts of relationships between women, the legacies of a hidden past, and the importance of the pueblo as a repository for those memories.

Opening the main competition of the 78th Venice Film Festival on a high note, this is a ravishingly crafted work that again illustrates with ineffable beauty that no one uses the expressive power of color and design quite like Almodóvar. The same goes for music, with a Hitchcockian score by regular collaborator Alberto Iglesias that’s lush and enveloping even by the composer’s distinguished standards.

Parallel Mothers

The Bottom Line

All about two mothers.

Venue: Venice Film Festival (Competition)
Cast: Penélope Cruz, Milena Smit, Israel Elejalde, Aitana Sánchez-Gijón, Rossy de Palma, Julieta Serrano
Director-screenwriter: Pedro Almodóvar

2 hours 3 minutes

While Parallel Mothers doesn’t match the intricately interwoven layers of Almodóvar’s top-tier work — All About My Mother, Talk to Her, Pain and Glory — and some of its key plot disclosures can be seen coming, that doesn’t make the melodrama any less gripping or emotionally satisfying. Above all, it gives the marvelous Cruz one of the best roles of her career — a woman whose fulfillment is shattered by a startling truth that steers her toward deception, until she can no longer contain it. The actress responds with her most outstanding work since Volver.

Cruz plays Janis, a successful commercial photographer named for Janis Joplin by her hippie mother, who died young and left her to be raised by her grandmother. After a photo shoot with forensic anthropologist Arturo (Israel Elejalde), Janis enlists his help in securing permits and funding from a historical society to excavate a mass grave in her childhood village. According to her family, her great-grandfather was dumped there after being killed by fascists during the Spanish Civil War. Janis and her surviving relatives hope to have the body exhumed so they can give him a proper burial alongside his wife.

Meanwhile, Janis begins a relationship with the married Arturo and falls pregnant, freeing him of all responsibility once she decides to go ahead and have the child, whom she names Cecilia, after her grandmother.

In the maternity ward, Janis meets the teenage Ana (Milena Smit) and a fast friendship is formed over labor pains. Both are single mothers whose pregnancies were unplanned, and while Janis is filled with joy by the unexpected surprise of a daughter at this relatively advanced point in her life, Ana, for reasons revealed only later, is overcome by depression. Ana’s actress mother, Teresa (Aitana Sánchez-Gijón), has promised to help raise her granddaughter, named Anita, while Janis’ steadfast rock is her agent and dear friend Elena (Rossy de Palma). Both are present for the births, filmed in intimate close-ups on the mothers’ faces, as agonizing miracles.

When Teresa is cast as the lead in a Lorca drama, she takes off on a pre-Madrid regional tour, leaving Ana and the baby in the care of her housekeeper. In typically playful yet somber Almodóvarian fashion, an impassioned monologue from the play performed by Teresa during a rehearsal provides a meta reflection on the fate of discarded women in Spain.

Janis and Ana remain in contact at first, but the photographer makes an alarming discovery that prompts her to cut herself off from almost everyone. She wrestles with a moral dilemma in the present as she continues to pursue the project to bring the secrets of the past to light in her native village. When a newly emancipated Ana — physically transformed, and untethered from both her mother and the father who rejected her — finds her way back into Janis’ life, the nature of their relationship changes dramatically, making it inevitable that the truth will surface.

The limitless love Almodóvar has shown toward his female characters throughout his career is on abundant display here, eschewing judgment and finding forgiveness even for the selfishness and flaws that cause them shame. This is very much true of Sánchez-Gijón’s proudly self-possessed Teresa, who unburdens herself to Janis in a lovely confessional scene, admitting she never felt the vocation to be a wife or mother, her first love being the theater.

The challenges and contradictions of being a woman bring soulful textures to scene after scene; even the potentially explosive revelation of sexual trauma is treated as one more crushing weight among many tests of a woman’s resilience.

Newcomer Smit is a real find as Ana, her path to maturity paved by searing pain, misplaced self-castigation, and ultimately, by radiant compassion. Almodóvar presents the character’s guarded vulnerability in touching contrast to Janis’ more turbulent nature.

Cruz holds nothing back, exposing the yearning and devastating hurt of a woman initially willing to bend her principles in order to protect her happiness. When Janis eventually comes clean at great personal cost, her honesty earns her redemption but also another unexpected gift of providence toward the end. In a less skilled filmmaker’s hands, that might have seemed too tidy. But Almodóvar’s generous spirit has always elevated his take on the human condition, and this is no exception.

Among the supporting cast, it’s gratifying to see the divine de Palma — who returned after a long break to working with Almodóvar in 2016’s Julieta — embrace the role of the supportive older woman with such style, warmth and natural humor. And veteran Julieta Serrano, never more memorable than as the wronged housewife in Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, has a touching single scene as the last surviving direct link to the sorrow that has haunted Janis’ family for generations.

Ana at first seems too young to grasp that history, which is destined to reassert itself. But her presence — along with that of Arturo — as part of an extended family adds considerably to the payoff of a delicately affecting conclusion that ties the drama together with deep feeling.

As always, the craft contributions are impeccable. DP José Luis Alcaine’s crystalline camerawork becomes slower and more measured in the solemn final moments, just as Iglesias’ orchestral score shifts into discordant piano. Teresa Font’s supple editing is graced by elegant fades to black closing several poignant scenes.

Of particular note is Antxón Gómez’s production design — full of luscious decor porn in the stylish interiors of Janis’ apartment, its terrace lemon tree suggesting an unbroken connection between city and country life; and the rustic childhood home to which she returns, its tiled kitchen walls a work of art. In the singular aesthetic vision of Almodóvar, even the normally sterile, institutional environment of a hospital maternity ward is alive with bold color, its greens and yellows more likely to be found in an ice cream parlor.

It’s a testament to the consummate gifts of one of the world’s most treasured filmmakers — now entering the fifth decade of a career still going strong — that he can constantly delight your eye with no risk of losing your involvement in the emotional lives of characters he so clearly adores.

Full credits

Venue: Venice Film Festival (Competition)
Cast: Penélope Cruz, Milena Smit, Israel Elejalde, Aitana Sánchez-Gijón, Rossy de Palma, Julieta Serrano
Distributor: Sony Pictures Classics
Production companies: Remotamente Films, El Deseo
Director-screenwriter: Pedro Almodóvar
Producer: Agustín Almodóvar
Executive producer: Esther García
Director of photography: José Luis Alcaine
Production designer: Antxón Gómez
Costume designer: Paola Torres
Editor: Teresa Font
Music: Alberto Iglesias
Casting: Eva Leira, Yolanda Serrano
Sales: FilmNation Entertainment

2 hours 3 minutes