Penelope Cruz and Milena Smit in “Parallel Mothers.” (Sony Pictures Classics)
Penelope Cruz and Milena Smit in “Parallel Mothers.”

Sony Pictures Classics

‘Parallel Mothers’ explores motherhood and ancestral trauma

February 1, 2022

The superlative Spanish director Pedro Almodóvar has returned with his 22nd film, “Parallel Mothers,” or in Spanish, “Madres paralelas.” 

The film features many of the identifiable and pervasive tropes that come with Almodóvar’s unique style, but with some fresh twists that make this film stand out in a long and noteworthy career. 

These include the use of melodrama, vibrant color palettes brought out in set design and the film’s female protagonists.

The writer-director began penning this film a while back, finally returning to writing it during the COVID-19 pandemic. The influence of the pandemic can be seen in the film, as it is mostly a domestic, internal project.

“Parallel Mothers” finds Janis Martines, played by a radiant Penélope Cruz, in the middle of a photo session with a forensic archeologist, Arturo (Israel Elejalde). 

After approaching him to help her excavate a mass grave from the Spanish Civil War, where her great-grandfather is buried, the two develop a sexual relationship that leads to Janis’ pregnancy.

Deciding to keep her pregnancy, Janis befriends Ana (Milena Smit), a woman who became a single mother after a horrible assault, and the two begin a friendship through their shared experience of motherhood. The film follows Janis as she begins to raise her daughter, dig up the trauma of her ancestry and develop a blossoming relationship with Ana. 

Almodóvar’s film is a masterclass in theme. The film finds the director playing with some of the strongest thematic content that has ever been seen across his decades-spanning career.

If Almodóvar hinted at the Spanish Civil War’s glooming shadow in projects such as “Volver,” it is here that he tackles it head-on. 

The film is thematically driven by focuses on motherhood, ancestry, ancestral trauma, womanhood and identification. 

The film is also dealing directly with the phenomenon of mass unmarked graves as a result of the Spanish Civil War, which is an ongoing area of investigation and cultural turmoil in the European country. 

Almodóvar’s films often feature the inclusion of filmmaking or storytelling as a notable motif, and here we see the director advancing this repeating trope, but through the use of photography.

Almodóvar’s career started in the late 1970s, at the end of the fascist dictatorship of Francisco Franco over Spain, which limited many directors in their ability to explore confrontational subject matter.

Almodóvar rose to prominence as a voice in rebellion to this. His films often feature taboo sexual and abnormal topics. As a gay man, he was quickly recognized as one of world cinema’s most involved and important directors. 

His early career came with success from films like “Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown,” “Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!” and “All About My Mother.” 

He has a long list of frequent collaborators, the two most notable being Penélope Cruz and Antonio Banderas, whose careers got their kickstart with the director. 

Following his earlier projects, Almodóvar would make other noteworthy classics such as “Bad Education,” “Volver,” “The Skin I Live In” and “Pain and Glory,” all of which seem to be building to this newest project. 

The film showcases a wonderful performance from Cruz and Smit as the two central mothers. Almodóvar, notorious for his intense participation in every aspect of his films, is also on display for some of his freshest screenwriting. 

The cinematography is natural and fluid, the set design luscious and immaculate, and his signature stylized melodrama works wonderfully in this domestic tale. Most notably, in this film, there are many moments with his characters speaking directly to the camera in tightly composed close ups. 

“Parallel Mothers” is another accolade on a long, impressive career, and it proves that Almodóvar is still one of cinema’s most prominent and exciting directors still working today.

Follow Alec on Twitter @alec_maskell.

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