Steeped in melodrama, Pedro Almodóvar’s Parallel Mothers shares at least one of its enormous twists with a plot line from Footballer’s Wives, which gives a rough idea of the kind of soapy narratives to expect from the Spanish director’s latest film.
Still, despite having more twists and turns than the EastEnders Christmas special – the kind that occasionally require suspension of disbelief – this is also Almodóvar’s most political feature by a mile, with a darker underlying message buried beneath. As he traces the two intermingling lives of two mothers who meet in hospital and give birth on the very same day, he also unearths a series of darker, more sombre truths around the shadow of loss cast over present-day Spain by the country’s Civil War. “No matter how hard you try to silence it, human history refuses to shut up,” reads the quote from Uruguayan journalist Eduardo Galeano, closing the film.
These human histories begin with Janis – played by Almodóvar’s frequent collaborator Penélope Cruz in a fiery, generous performance which ranks among her best work. Like many families in Spain, Janis’ past has been marked by the devastation of Fascism, and her great-grandfather’s body still lies in a mass-grave somewhere outside his old village. At work one day as a photographer, she begins an affair with famous forensic archaeologist Arturo (Israel Elejalde) well-known for his work investigating such cases, and asks him to help reclaim their ancestor. When Janis unexpectedly gets pregnant, she’s surprised but delighted. With a stable career, a beautiful magazine-spread flat, and the help of best mate Elena (played by another regular face in Almodóvar’s films, Rossy de Palma) she decides to raise her child as a single mother, just as previous generations of women in her family did before her.
Elsewhere in Madrid, it’s an entirely different story for teenager Ana (Milena Smit), who is pregnant because a group of men raped her. Though her family are seemingly wealthy, they offer virtually no emotional or financial support. Ana’s father is inexplicably away in Granada, while her mother (you suspect her name, Teresa, is slightly tongue-in-cheek) seems more focused on the challenges this unexpected child will present to her questionable acting career. Gaudy and theatrical, Aitana Sánchez-Gijón’s chain-smoking Teresa almost feels like she could be a classic Almodóvar heroine, if she wasn’t so self-absorbed and narcissistic. Tellingly, she also proudly declares that she’s “apolitical” – being totally ambivalent about politics is an extreme privilege that neither Ana nor Janis can afford.
As the story progresses, Janis and Ana’s lives converge together in a series of surprising, strange and touching ways – and as with many of Almodóvar’s previous films (particularly 1999’s All About My Mother) the idea of chosen family is central as the women confront motherhood together. When Arturo delivers on his promise towards the end of the film, they stand side-by-side surrounded by generations of women from the village where Janis’ great-grandfather was murdered, with the brutality of Spain’s recent history plain to see in the excavated grave below. The king of kitschy, campy cinema, understated is not always a word you’d readily associate with Pedro Almodóvar, but in his compassionate hands, motherhood becomes a vehicle for something much more weighty. With each generation, we carry forward the burdens of the past – and by confronting it, Almodóvar seems to suggest, there is hope for the future.
- Director: Pedro Almodóvar
- Starring: Penélope Cruz, Rossy de Palma, Aitana Sánchez-Gijón
- Release date: January 28