Director: Pedro Almodovar
Writer: Pedro Almodovar
Cast: Penelope Cruz, Milena Smit, Israel Elejalde
Like most great movies, the opening shot of Parallel Mothers contains the film in its entirety. Penelope Cruz’s character, Janis, is doing a magazine shoot with a man called Arturo (Israel Elejalde). It provides the film its gaze – which is not just that we will see it from Janis’ point-of-view, but also that the movie will delve into what she is looking for. Janis does a swell job with the shoot (asking Arturo to smile with his eyes), but she’s after something bigger. They strike up a conversation post shoot, sharing a laugh about using a human skull as a jokey prop – he is a forensic anthropologist. Then she tells him about a personal project she’d like him to undertake: excavating the mortal remains of her great grandfather, who, like many of his compatriots, was murdered by General Franco’s men. This framing device is very Almodovar, an admission of the self-reflexive nature of image-making – justified further by the detail that the great grandfather was a photographer too – its woman’s glossy aesthetic meeting an almost forensic, X-ray vision scan for truth.
The whole story is literally born out of that scene, as moments later Janis and Arturo make love in a Madrid hotel room in the daytime. Only in the next scene – when we see her sharing a maternity ward with another woman, Ana (Milena Smit), their bellies swollen like balloons – do we find ourselves in the movie suggested in the title. The central drama concerns these two women, parallel mothers but also contrasting mothers: the unplanned pregnancy is a cause of distress for the adolescent Ana; whereas Janis is pleasantly surprised that she could conceive at forty. In fact she is thankful to Arturo, who she relieves of all responsibilities – single motherhood, she declares, is a family tradition.
This is where Almodovar ingenuously links the personal and political, history and family history, the past and the present, the story and the framing device. Again we go back to the first shot: what Janis is looking for – her quest to commemorate her great grandfather; her desire to raise a child as a single mother – is joined at the hip with the worst years of Fascist era Spain and the heady days of the counterculture revolution that swept a post Franco nation (a movement where Almodovar the artist sprang from): her great grandmother was widowed at the hands of Franco’s army; her mother was a hippie in Ibiza in the time of free love (she named her after Janis Joplin and, like the singer, overdosed and became a part of the 27 club); Janis was raised by her grandmother. Parallel Mothers is a story of many women, not just Janis and Ana, and that includes the useless babysitter. She sucks at her job and Janice has to let her stay so she can continue her masters in Hispanic studies, but she’s a mother in her own way, juggling career and survival.
Much of the dramatic mystery is generated by what happens between Janis and Ana, an intertwining of fate that involves a big secret. Appropriately, Almodovar withholds information, both from the audience and the characters, revealing it carefully: When Arturo pays Janice a visit months after their daughter is born, she opens the door and the scene transitions to a meeting between them we had not seen earlier. As indicated in the first scene, nothing is more revelatory than media and technology: on more than one occasion, Janis’ discovery of terrible, hard to handle truths come from DNA tests and photographic evidence.
Ultimately, Janis’ journey mirrors Spain’s own reconciliation with a history it has refused to acknowledge, a problem further worsened by the rise of the far right in the recent past. Likewise, we see reconciliations between the characters as a result of the unplanned pregnancies, and the complications caused by eerie coincidences. Almodovar flits between comedy, melodrama, mystery, complete with his exuberant sense of technicolour decor and his love for sun-kissed patios. He gets a full-blooded performance from Penelope Cruz – muse, madonna, and whore. In the opening scene of Live Flesh (1997), Cruz’s prostitute gives birth inside a public bus at midnight in a Franco-era Spain. The wintry, semi-autobiographical Pain & Glory (2019) ends with a surprising reveal: Cruz plays the mother of the boy in the movie within the movie. Parallel Mothers brings closure with a different kind of reenactment, and a variation on the first shot: all the women from the movie, Janis included, look into the dug site where the men, including Arturo, lie pretending to be dead.
Parallel Mothers is playing in cinemas