Who we love and why we love them is a product of both bloodline and circumstance, conditioning, the initial connection
Classic from Sony Pictures
By Luke Hicks Published on October 11, 2021
1980, beloved Spanish writer and director Pedro Almodovar delved into his first full-length exploration of the maternal about Pepi, Luci, Bom and Other Girls Like Mom. Thirty-one years and twenty-one game days later, he’s still exploring motherhood, sometimes in the truest sense of the word. Parallel mothers begins with a family burial site that gives way to an overarching genealogical narrative that is left behind early and is taken up again in the last moments like a real bookend.
No matter where the film goes, it always comes back to the family, whether in bed next to our main role or on the floor. The majority of Parallel Mothers play among the genealogical bookends within a telenovela-like plot that twists and turns to unexpected places that is well complemented by longtime collaborators Alberto Iglesia placeholder image‘s slick, tinny, spy thriller-esque score (the same man who composed Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and The Constant Gardener, mind you). The narrative beats are elevated and melodramatic, but the performances are grounded and realistic – a stiff arm for the theatrical soap approach.
After a thematically focused introduction and some rough, happy sex during the day, Almodóvar sets the stage for the emotional rollercoaster ride with a dueling pregnancy sequence in which Janis (Penelope Cruz in her seventh Almodóvar feature film) and Ana (great newcomer Milena Smit) have their babies at the same time as the camera bounces back and forth between bumps and screams.
Ana is young and scared, a soon to be single mother who will live at home with her notorious acting mother Teresa (Aitana Sánchez-Gijón), who disapproves of Ana’s decision to have the child. Janis – named after Janis Joplin, whose smoky singing sparkles a passionate romance in the film – is a confident, career-driven, single forty-year-old who never bothered or expected to have a child, but the happy accident as an invitation to a wonderful new one Stage of life.
Connected only by the circumstances (hospital roommate), the two paths separate as soon as it is time to go home, but not without exchanging numbers. We skip a few months only to find Ana – whose long, dark hair has morphed into a spiky blond boy cut – waiting for Janis in a cafe, both surprised to see each other and eager to catch up. What is unfolding there deserves to be experienced in its purest form, but rest assured you will not see it coming. And it’s fast, thanks to incredible performances from Cruz and Smit.
Much of Almodóvar’s research on motherhood can be reduced to single motherhood. And much of his interest in (single parenting) motherhood can be reduced to an even more universal topic of his work: femininity. While the competition is fierce in its filmography, Parallel Mothers stands out as one of its best forms of expression – one of its sharpest and most complex angles on the subject.
Parallel Mothers deals with the identities and realities of Janis and Ana as women as much, if not more, as mothers, especially when it comes to the blatant differences between them in terms of class and ethnicity. While Janis is a successful photographer who can finance a nanny’s salary without batting an eyelid, Ana just tries to make ends meet and unfortunately relies on her selfish mother’s finances. But Almodóvar doesn’t make it that easy.
Ana, in her youthful ignorance and family denial, fails to understand the ugly history of the Spanish Civil War that lurks below them, reflecting the calls of colorist supremacy that Ana’s fair-skinned bourgeois offspring had touted as a good reason for the extermination of the dark-skinned lower classes, the Janis ‘Fill in the lineage. And Janis has to know Ana, to remember, just as Almodóvar needs it from us. The bookends are there for a reason.
By bringing back the gravesite of Janis’s murdered descendants, which she would like to professionally uncover in order to enable their great-grandparents to be buried appropriately, Almodóvar spans the story over four generations of women. From the buried great-grandmother to the newborn daughter, he brings the topic of intergenerational trauma to the fore and illuminates the overlooked atrocities of the Spanish civil war in order to anchor them in our collective memories.
However, Ana’s role / importance in Janis’ life, which has no bloodlines but only coincidences, illustrates another important topic at the heart of Almodóvar’s career: “Family” takes many forms. Janis’ backstory shows that ancestry is a beautiful and painful part of us whether we like it or not, while Ana’s background reminds us that some of our most beloved family members have been chosen. Who we love and why we love them is also a product of circumstance, conditioning, connection.
There is one real warning to be aware of before you go to Parallel Mothers: beware of the desire that grows in you or your partner to have a child. I, single and simply disinterested, was not exposed to this danger and still suffered from it. So be really careful. Films can change lives, and Parallel Mothers is so emotionally engaging that it borders on a call to intergenerational action – a call to procreation. And while the compelling effect is undoubtedly a reflection of a powerfully crafted image, acting on it could send you into a narrative whirlwind. Trust me, I’ve seen Parallel Mothers.
Related topics: NYFF, Parallel Mothers, Pedro Almodóvar, Penelope Cruz
Luke Hicks is a New York based film journalist based in Austin, TX and an arts enthusiast who received his Masters in Philosophy and Ethics from Duke. He thinks that every occasion should be one of the following: whiskey, coffee, gin, tea, beer or olives. Love or berate him @lou_kicks.