Parallel Mothers (Spain, 2021)

January 05, 2022
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Parallel Mothers Poster

Parallel Mothers, Pedro Almodovar’s 15th movie since exploding onto the international scene with Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, is two movies crammed into one and both suffer at least a little by having to share time with the other. I suppose it’s fair to argue there are some thematic connections – both have something to do with DNA and the ways in which generations (past, present, and future) entwine – but the film seems overstuffed (and not in a good way). The larger, central narrative contains its share of emotionally combustible moments but it is shunted to the side during the third act to allow time for the development of a secondary, less compelling story.

Parallel Mothers opens with two woman awaiting epidurals as they go into labor. Janis (Penelope Cruz) is a 40-ish photographer who is delighted by the thought of having a child. The much younger Ana (Melina Smit) is terrified by everything that being a single mother will entail. During their short period in the hospital, Janis and Ana bond and, as they are leaving, they exchange phone numbers and promise to stay in touch. While Janis adores her little Cecilia, she can’t shake the fact that something is wrong. The girl bears no resemblance to either Janis or the father, Arturo (Israel Elejalde). She submits DNA samples and learns, much to her distress, that she is not Cecilia’s biological mother. The hospital inadvertently swapped her baby with Ana’s…and the girl Ana brought home didn’t survive.

There’s certainly more in those circumstances to warrant a film but Almodovar, as is his wont, heaps on the melodrama by adding complications to the already fraught relationship between the two women. For Janis, the painful situation leaves her with no good choices. She loves Cecilia but knows that the baby is Ana’s and a simple swap, however bittersweet that might have been, is not possible.

In his 2013 masterpiece, Japanese filmmaker Hirokazu Kore-eda addressed similar issues in Like Father, Like Son. While Parallel Mothers achieves a certain level of emotional engagement from the audience and illustrates the difficulties faced by both women, the cumulative impact isn’t nearly as devastating as that in Like Father, Like Son, which is precise in its approach. In fact, about two-thirds of the way through Parallel Mothers, Almodovar seems to lose interest in this story, which he wraps up in an abrupt and contrived fashion.

The other piece of the narrative relates to the exhumation of mass graves dating back to the Spanish Civil War so the victims can be identified and given a proper burial. Although little background would be needed for an audience from Almodovar’s native country, outsiders may be confused by the references to Franco, the fascist atrocities, and why there’s such a concerted effort in 2021 to bring closure to as many families as possible. For those without a good working knowledge of 20th century Spanish history, a quick perusal of the relevant Wikipedia entries is recommended homework.

The subject matter of locating and honoring the dead would seem to have personal resonance for Almodovar because he devotes the movie’s final quarter to it. The problem, however, isn’t the sentiment; it’s the execution. It feels like an afterthought and the dramatic elements lack power. The connection to the characters is tangential (Janis’ great-grandfather was one of the victims in a mass grave).

Two of the actors have lengthy histories with Almodovar: Cruz, who has now been in about a half-dozen of his films going back to Live Flesh, and Rossy de Palma (as Janis’ best friend), who was a constant presence in Almodovar’s early films. The standout performance belongs to Cruz, who provides viewers with an intimate connection to Janis’ shifting, conflicted emotions. The other lead, relative newcomer Milena Smit (this is only her second feature), is uneven, although it’s difficult to determine whether the character’s inconsistencies are a result of Smit’s performance or Almodovar’s writing.

Despite some of the seemingly obtuse screenwriting decisions made by Almodovar, Parallel Mothers is a strong, affecting drama that asks tough questions for which there are no neat, clean answers. Thoroughly conventional by the director’s standards (hard to believe this is the man who made Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!), the central narrative is accessible and, even considering the weakness of its resolution, offers a wrenching emotional experience.

Parallel Mothers (Spain, 2021)

Director: Pedro Almodovar
Cast: Penelope Cruz, Milena Smit, Rossy De Palma, Aitana Sánchez-Gijón, Israel Elejalde
Home Release Date: 2022-04-05
Screenplay: Pedro Almodovar
Cinematography: Jose Luis Alcaine
Music: Alberto Iglesias
U.S. Distributor: Sony Pictures Classics
Run Time: 2:03
U.S. Release Date: 2021-12-24
MPAA Rating: "R" (Sexual Content)
Genre: Drama
Subtitles: In Spanish with subtitles
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1