Parallel Mothers feels like classic Pedro Almodóvar. The Spanish director’s 22nd feature, the film carries a plot that it feels like he could make work in his sleep. Of course, with an end result this emotionally precise, it’s abundantly clear that, after all this time, the filmmaker is still working at the height of his powers.
A melodrama with a political twist, Parallel Mothers follows two women of different generations in Madrid that form a strong bond while in the hospital, preparing to give birth. Janis (Penélope Cruz) is a veteran fashion photographer who has just hit 40, while Ana (impressive newcomer Milena Smit) is still living with her parents deciding what she wants to do with her life. As it’s clear neither father will be, at the very least, an occasional presence in the young child’s life, the pair remain in loose contact over the years. That is, until their lives intersect in a more significant and permanent manner.
True to Almodóvar’s signature talents, Parallel Mothers is a comedic melodrama in its most pure form. The twists that Janis and Ana interpersonal journeys take are soapy and delicious, all while the director’s pacing and Cruz’s quite possibly career-best performance ensure the film never slips into territory that removes our emotional investment. At just over two hours, this turbulent human drama manages not to outstay its welcome, keeping us glued to the decisions these women make in the midst of larger conversations about one’s connection, and responsibility for, the history around them.
Almodóvar’s script smartly laces a more profound conversation about the controversial excavation of mass graves from the Spanish Civil War into the background of the women’s relationship. Eventually it builds to a heated conversation between Janis and Ana in which the pain of the history Spain has, until recently, largely swept under the rug boils over. But this issue doesn’t stick out like a sore thumb amid the melodrama at the plot’s center. It ties to the themes of where one comes from and the importance of love over all else that Janis and Ana are forced to reconcile with throughout the film.
Cruz is a wonder to behold here, delivering a fully realized women in Janis through a warm spirit and a restrained emotional vulnerability that quickens her to fear and anger. Finding strength through trust is her character’s main arc, and Cruz takes us through the journey without ever overplaying it, clueing us in to the film’s endgame. It helps that her chemistry with Smit, undoubtedly a talent to keep an eye on, is one of the highlights of Parallel Mothers. As they continue to move closer to joining each other’s’ family, Almodóvar resumes his signature adoration for seeing cross-generational women come together.
And so we’re left with another stunner added to an already stunning filmography. Parallel Mothers may not be Almodóvar’s best film, but this late into the director’s career, it’s a work that makes what he does look easy while still managing to challenge us. As funny and as twisty as the film can be, there are no easy answers for Janis and Ana. That uniquely human element of the unknown as it ties to our emotions and desires is precisely what makes Almodóvar the modern master of the melodrama.