Synopsis: Two unmarried women who have become pregnant by accident and are about to give birth meet in a hospital room: Janis, middle-aged, unrepentant and happy; Ana, a teenager, remorseful and frightened.
Stars: Penélope Cruz, Milena Smit, Israel Elejalde, Aitana Sánchez-Gijón, Rossy de Palma, Julieta Serrano
Director: Pedro Almodóvar
Running Length: 123 minutes
TMMM Score: (9/10)
Review: In film history, there have been fine examples of actors and filmmakers who have become known for their strong working relationships with a particular actor. Scorcese and DeNiro (and DiCaprio), Allen and Keaton, Tarantino and Jackson, Hitchcock and Grant, Kurosawa and Mifune. All-stars and their directors with at least one film are mentioned in boldface whenever their bio is listed. After working on seven films together since 1997, you’d have to add Penélope Cruz and Pedro Almodóvar to that list as well. With the release of Parallel Mothers, the deck is reshuffled as to which project you’d put into the top position as the crown jewel of their working relationship.
It all started with Live Flesh precisely 25 years ago, the same year she appeared in Abre los ojos, remade four years later as Vanilla Sky, where she’d recreate her work and begin her relationship with Tom Cruise. It was followed in 2002 by Almodóvar’s Oscar-winning All About My Mother before they re-teamed for Cruz’s first brush with an Oscar nomination in 2006’s Volver.
Several more films have been together, even after Cruz took home the Best Supporting Actress Academy Award in 2008 for Woody Allen’s Vicky Christina Barcelona. Still, while Almodóvar has always given the star some choice roles, it’s been a minute since she’s carried the film almost entirely on her own. After making his most personal film to date with 2019’s Pain and Glory and featuring Cruz as a proxy for his mother, Almodóvar is back with a vehicle tailor-made for the terrific talents of his international star. It’s taken me a while to completely hop on the Cruz train, stopping several times over the years to hop off and reconsider my travel plans, but with Parallel Mothers, I’m ready to jump on for the complete voyage. Representing the very best of what Cruz and Almodóvar do well both separately and together, this melodrama from Spain snags you right the start with a breathtaking image. It leaves you with another that will haunt you long after it ends.
That first shot is of Janis (Cruz, Murder on the Orient Express), a sought-after photographer in the middle of a shoot with, of all things, an equally famous archaeologist (Israel Elejalde). The obvious sparks are flying between the two. The chemistry on display eventually leads initially to Janis asking Arturo if he’d be willing to help her with a project close to her heart, that of finding answers to the mass burial of her relatives and others from her home village during the Spanish Civil War. Perhaps not the most romantic of propositions, but it leads to Janis becoming pregnant and finding herself a likely single mother giving birth alone and staying in the same hospital room as Ana (Milena Smit, Cross the Line), a teenager staring down her own unique set of entanglements. As the two women give birth almost simultaneously, they lean on each other for support, promise to keep in touch, then go their separate ways.
To say what happens next would maybe reveal a bit more than Almodóvar would like you to know going in. And really, it’s best to know as little as you possibly can because while I wouldn’t exactly describe the plot of Parallel Mothers as serpentine, it twists in on itself just when you think you’ve gotten comfortable. Plot developments allow Cruz and Smit to explore intriguing areas of what it means to be a mother and the striking questions when the unpredictability of life and human behavior get in the way of best-laid plans. The through-line of the piece is always the advocacy Cruz undertakes for the sake of honoring the memory of her grandfather and men of his village, and Almodóvar has put that political slant into this piece to call out the atrocities of war buried over time. The women were left to pick up the fragments of lives/love left behind, and as Almodóvar shows through images both easily explained and up for interpretation (like that aforementioned last shot) the toll this took over time.
Many actresses (and actors) in Hollywood will watch Parallel Mothers and wish all directors would turn a lens on them as Almodóvar does for Cruz. Capturing her impossible beauty is one thing, but allowing her charm and character flaws to come through is a bold choice, and it only makes the character more deeply felt and realistic. The film trades on some melodrama in style and overall tone around the middle section, but it’s a rhythm only someone that’s worked with Almodóvar could balance so evenly, and Cruz nails it. I think it’s the best performance by an actress of 2021 without question and indeed a kind of apex of Cruz’s career up until now. She’s matched nicely with the intriguing Smit, vulnerable at the outset only to return later as a creation more maturely mysterious. As usual, in addition to having fantastic taste in the look of his production design and costuming, Almodóvar brings in a dynamic supporting cast. As Ana’s mother dreams of stage stardom, Aitana Sánchez-Gijón gives the audience a third category of a mother who views the role quite differently than the Cruz or Smit characters do. Then there’s Almodóvar favorite Rossy de Palma, not quite as vibrant as she has been in past films but contributing the same strength to each scene.
At this point, it’s still up in the air if Parallel Mothers will play well enough to land Cruz an Oscar nomination this year. I think if she gets in, she’s winning it (though Nicole Kidman in Being the Ricardos is closing in on a lock) but being left out of a few key races doesn’t look promising. Here’s hoping she’s recognized for this shattering work and that Almodóvar gets a spotlight shoutout somewhere along the way as well. The movies he makes, even a short one like 2020’s The Human Voice, are so far above the norm; they should be more of an event when they arrive.