Parallel Mothers: NYFF Review

Year: 2021
Runtime: 2 hours
Director: Pedro Almodóvar
Writer: Pedro Almodóvar
Stars: Penélope Cruz, Milena Smit, Israel Elejalde, Aitana Sánchez-Gijón, Rossy de Palma

By Valerie Kalfrin

Mothers and daughters, identity and history combine in “Parallel Mothers” (2021), a twisty tale from writer-director Pedro Almodóvar that suggests our life stories don’t run on parallel tracks so much as intertwine.

The closing night film of the New York Film Festival, “Parallel Mothers” reunites Almodóvar with frequent collaborator Penélope Cruz, with whom he’s often tackled complex family narratives (“Volver” (2006), “All About My Mother”(1999)). Here, while the story branches into wild directions, Almodóvar dials down the melodrama to tie the stories of two unexpected mothers into a horrific chapter in Spain’s past, one still undergoing a reckoning.

Janis (Cruz), a professional photographer, introduces this chapter after meeting Arturo (Israel Elejalde, “Amador”(2010)), a forensic anthropologist, on assignment. She asks his help in excavating an unmarked mass grave in her hometown where Falangists during the 1930s killed and buried her great-grandfather and others. Although the film is light on that era’s turmoil and politics, Arturo’s involvement touches on Spain’s grassroots efforts in recent years to give victims from that time (an estimated 112,000) a proper burial and make peace with the past.

Two pregnant women, one in her forties and another about half her age, in a maternity ward.
Milena Smit (left) and Penélope Cruz in “Parallel Mothers” / Courtesy of IMDB.com

Arturo promises to do what he can, and the two quickly fall into an affair. Because he’s married and his wife is dying of cancer, Janis soon breaks off the relationship, freeing him of all future responsibilities to the girl. Single motherhood doesn’t daunt her. Her grandmother raised Janis after her own mother, a fan of Janis Joplin, died in her twenties.

In the maternity ward of a Madrid hospital, Janis meets Ana (Milena Smit, “Cross the Line” (2015)), a rural teen whose father sent her away after she became pregnant through what Janis later classifies as rape. Ana’s divorced mother, Teresa (Aitana Sánchez-Gijón, “Velvet” (2013)), an actress, has her own ambivalent feelings about motherhood.

Janis and Ana develop a bond during their short time together that strengthens once their baby girls need observation for medical issues. The women agree to keep in touch, reconnecting and affecting each other’s lives in surprising ways.

Cruz is sympathetic and moving as a career woman adjusting to first-time motherhood in her forties; she falls in love with the baby, whom she names after her grandmother, in a believable, naturalistic way. Smit matches her strong performance, showing how her own child infuses Ana with maturity, grace, and a newfound confidence in her skin that Teresa can’t help but admire.

The script has some wry lines about womanhood and motherhood, mainly through Janis and Teresa. Hearing her baby had trouble breathing outside the uterus, Janis notes that the little girl’s whole life will involve adapting to being on the outside.

The drama between Ana and Janis might resolve too swiftly for some viewers, and their immersive narrative also seems too divergent from the excavation. Yet by braiding these threads together, “Parallel Mothers” emphasizes the importance of addressing wounds, bringing the truth to light, and embracing what family entails.

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