Film files: The breathless, brutal world of Pedro Almodóvar’s ‘Parallel Mothers’

Two women look at each other intimately.
Milena Smit and Penélope Cruz star in Pedro Almodóvar’s latest film, “Parallel Mothers.” (Courtesy: Iglesias Más/Sony Pictures Classics)

All of Pedro Almodóvar’s films hold something unique and special — something you can intimately relate to — and “Parallel Mothers,” or “Madres Paralelas,” is no exception. The Spanish director’s latest film, which premiered at the Venice Film Festival in September, stars Penélope Cruz as Janis, a single mom who meets teen mom Ana (Milena Smit) in the maternity ward of a hospital. The two women bond as roommates and give birth to baby daughters at almost the same time, inspiring a series of events that link their destinies forever.

In Pedro Almodóvar’s “Live Flesh” (1997), Cruz played Isabel, a young prostitute who gives birth on a bus, screaming into the Madrid night as her friend cuts the umbilical cord with her teeth. Twenty years later, Cruz plays a different mother in another of Almodóvar’s films — this one older, wiser and more self-possessed. As she gives birth under bright hospital lights, Janis does not cling to helplessness like Isabel. However, the scenes to come will strain her sense of self-possession as a woman and simultaneously place her on the path to reclaiming it.

“Parallel Mothers” is tender and intimate in its reflections on motherhood. In the film, both women are defined by their strained relationships with their mothers. Janis was the child of a free spirit who died of an overdose at 27. Ana was the child of a suave actress who abandoned her to pursue the stage, a mother who even calls herself “the worst mother in the world” in one scene. These relationships subtly and not-so-subtly shape how the women raise their own daughters and how they bond as friends (and eventually lovers).

The realism and depth of emotion with which Almodóvar captures these experiences reflects how films on motherhood are holy ground for the director. They are a space in which he has honed his craft and produced some of his most touching work.

This film is gentle while pulling you in. It is also far more toned down and sober than most of Almodóvar’s work. It does not delve into the campy satire and soapy violence that defined earlier, blood-soaked films such as “Matador” or “Law of Desire.” However, it lacks the completeness of “Pain and Glory,” Almodóvar’s 2019 feature, which stars Antonio Banderas (another Almodóvar regular) as an aging Almodóvar-esque film director reflecting on his past and present.

In spite of these differences, though, both “Parallel Mothers” and “Pain and Glory” mark a new era for Almodóvar. They are refreshingly grounded in their explorations of classic Almodóvarian themes such as motherhood, sexual violence and intergenerational trauma.

Another sign of this new era is a subplot of the film that focuses on the real-life campaign of Spanish citizens to excavate the unmarked, mass graves of those killed by the regime of dictator Francisco Franco decades before. While Almodóvar’s earlier films ignored Spain’s brutal past and the legacy of its political violence, this film leans into it.

Janis is a photographer shooting a forensic anthropologist named Arturo (Israel Elejalde) for a magazine spread. She asks him to help in the investigation to excavate the grave of her great-grandfather, who was killed during the Franco regime, and seeks to uncover her family’s lost history over the course of the film.

In showing how Janis’ personal history ties into a national history, Almodóvar pushes you to slip into a world that mirrors and channels the traumatic reality for generations of Spaniards who are still experiencing the effects of their country’s shaky transition from dictatorship to democracy.

“Parallel Mothers” is an ideal film to go into knowing very little. Its plot is dense and intricate, and it is best to experience Almodóvar in this way: embracing the bluntness of the brutal, beautiful world he breathes into existence. Almodóvar seems distinctly aware of the dangers of a ‘documentary’ or overly realistic approach — of trying to ease his characters to the events unfolding around them rather than letting them emerge on their own, letting them surprise and disturb you. This aura of abandon is captured in an interview with Frédéric Strauss for the book “Almodóvar on Almodóvar,” in which the director explains, “I only know how to work by becoming the victim of my passion for it.”

Hannah Eliot SC ’24 is from San Francisco, California. She is currently taking a film class at Scripps called The Spanish Transition Through the Lens of Pedro Almodóvar.

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