Rating: 4 out of 5
The formal elegance of late career Almodóvar is a force to be reckoned with. Since Julieta the filmmaker has somehow become both more inscrutable and increasingly blunt. His flair for melodrama has heightened even though his aesthetics have hushed and gained a newfound maturity. The dichotomy has offered filmgoers thrilling results, Pain and Glory might even be his most essential film even if it’s not the most indicative of why we all fell in love with his work in the first place. His latest Parallel Mothers appears as a spiritual successor to Julieta, in that it’s at once a Sirkian melodrama and Hitchcockian thriller simultaneously, however, for a filmmaker like Almodóvar he simply refuses the excesses afforded to these two styles and dismantles their components and rearranges them for his own purposes. For all the simmering emotions within this film, it’s rather quiet and subdued, even the fervent sexuality typically characteristic of his catalog is presented here in muted tones. Parallel Mothers is a mostly brilliant character study with a political edge that threatens at once to enliven and sink the entire picture. In other words, a truly daring film.
The plot is initially misleading, hinting that it will largely revolve around Janis (Penélope Cruz) attempting to excavate the remains of her deceased great-grandfather who was murdered by the Franco regime. Some basic knowledge of Spanish history is required to fully enjoy the intentions of Almodóvar’s political statement, however, the film pivots from this narrative towards one about Janis and Ana (Milena Smit) two mothers who give birth at the same time, from this point on there’s more than enough melodrama and narrative twists to keep a viewer happy, but the ending, I hope, will still have the same impact even for those without background information about the Franco dictatorship. The major events within the story are blips in the bigger picture for Almodóvar, explosive emotions that test the fortitude of his characters but they only provide an excuse to learn more about their interiority of these people. The central women of this film all have dreams that propel them, the real narrative of this film is five women juggling their wants and needs, and mediating them with what the world requires and expects of them.
The performances in this film are universally stunning. Cruz and Smit obviously do the majority of the heavy lifting as the central players in the film, Cruz exudes a constant wisdom and resilience while Smit grows up effortlessly before our eyes. The surprise was the Teresa (Aitana Sánchez-Gijón) character, Ana’s mother, she has a monologue at the midpoint in the film that reframes her not as the neglectful mother that Ana portrays her as but instead a robust and vibrant personality who’s haunted by her decisions and is really only guilty of prioritizing her goals. Parallel Mothers excels at this, baiting the audience to believe in one thing only to provide them with another, even within the narrative itself, because just as you’ve forgotten about the plot thread about digging up the remains of Janis’ great-grandfather or simply disavowed yourself of the idea that it might return, it does, providing a powerful emotional wallop that was genuinely unexpected and left many in the theater I was in walking out perplexed and uncertain.
This next section is more of a rebuttal to criticism I’ve seen, and while there are certainly flaws present in the film, I don’t believe the one’s highlighted by some are valuable or even merited. Some have critiqued this film for it’s politicism arguing that the characters are washed out in favor of the political message, when the inverse is true. The political nature of this film is inarguably secondary to character relationships which I would argue is not so much a problem theoretically as it is in practice. As I previously mentioned the abrupt ending confused many filmgoers at the screening I attended, this was partially due to the American audience as the Franco dictatorship does not weigh heavily on our collective psyche like it would for a Spanish audience, but I believe also because of how suddenly and without warning the political themes were brought back into focus.
Maybe the most arresting aspect of this movie, and about Almodóvar’s career as a whole, is that he decimates gaps between genres, he sees Hitchcockian plots as opportunities for soap operatic melodrama, and Sirkian outbursts of passion as moments of subtle nuance and immense weight. He makes films of astonishing contradictions, his films are both problematic and impressive in their representation, and this is only part of what has made him such a provocative figure on the international film scene. His films appeal equally to people in their twenties as they do in their middle or old age because he is such a sympathetic filmmaker, no characters are excluded from the depth of his affection, it’s why conflicts are rendered in such vivid hues in his films, because he believes they are important. This is a great film, I doubt it will convert those skeptical of his talents and it will certainly be an odd work for even those familiar with his particular style, but I am confident in saying that this is a work of dense intrigue and studied skill.