Parallel Mothers (Madres paraleles) ★★1/2
Availability: Showing nationally in some theaters; streaming for $20 on many sites, including AppleTV and Amazon Prime; see JustWatch here for future (less costly) availability.
The Ties that Bind
At a time when birth rates in developed countries are at or near post-World War II lows, it’s to be expected that filmmakers would explore how men and women understand the prospect of having and raising children. Recent entries in this crowded field include most notably “The Lost Daughter,” whose career-oriented protagonist lacks maternal instincts, but also “Spencer,” featuring Princess Diana as a mother without a mother, without role models for parenting, and, in some sense, without a husband; “Nightmare Alley,” which is all about fathers, with mothers nonexistent; and now “Parallel Mothers,” presenting missing or uninterested fathers and at least 3 generations of mothers, each with her own problem (and one of those problems shared).
The plot turns on a revelation that’s intended to be shocking, but is so obvious that one of your 2 Film Critics had it pegged in the first 20 minutes.
At the center of this melodrama are Ana (Milena Smit), a teenager who contemplates abortion, and Janis (Penélope Cruz), whose own mother (after naming her for Janis Joplin), died of an overdose when she was 7. Now approaching 40, Janis is pregnant and eager to be a mother. Then there’s Teresa (Aitana Sánchez-Gijón), Ana’s mother, an upwardly-mobile actress obsessed with her career (an overused trope in mother films), who admits “I was the worst mother in the world,” while not much caring. Janis and Ana meet and bond in a hospital room while in labor. Later they’ll bond in another way, a twist that goes nowhere and is really beside the point. The plot turns on a revelation that’s intended to be shocking, but is so obvious that one of your 2 Film Critics had it pegged in the first 20 minutes. For Janis, that revelation, together with the film’s only real surprise, results in the expected, nature-vs-nurture ethical dilemma.
Teenage Ana (Milena Smit),
left, and almost-40 Janis
(Penélope Cruz), both
without husbands, bond
in the maternity ward.
Not only the plot, but the mis-en-scene has the feel of a Hallmark made-for-TV movie. The setting is an elite Madrid subculture, replete with nannies and maids. Janis’s apartment is ostentatiously comfortable, as if staged by a real estate agent.
Perhaps understanding the limits and ordinariness of the core of the film, internationally renowned Spanish director Pedro Almodóvar has sought to enrich the project by introducing other issues, only tangentially related to the main theme. One of them, neither new nor profound, and handled with more dexterity and subtlety in Hirokazu Koreeda’s “Shoplifters” (2018), is the nature of family. Does the bond between Ana and Janis reach the level of “family,” as Ana’s participation in a wake for Janis’s grandfather, dead for over 85 years, would suggest? Not likely.
A second issue, related to family and tapping into the current interest in finding relatives through DNA, has to do with the role of science—here, forensic anthropology and genetics—in shaping how much one cares about and values another person, whether a long-lost relative or a child who may or may not be own’s own. It so happens that Arturo (Israel Elejalde), Janis’s beau, is (too good to be true!) a forensic anthropologist. He agrees to assist her in digging up and verifying the remains of her grandfather and other men, victims in the 1930s of Franco’s fascist regime and—acting out of intuition, rather than science—takes one look at Janis’s newborn and pronounces, “the baby isn’t mine.”
Almodóvar’s effort to link the issues of mothering and children to the Spanish Civil War appears designed to lend some weight and complexity to a story that’s all too predictable.
A closing scene reenacts Giuseppe Pellizza da Volpedo’s 1901 painting, “The Fourth Estate,” as family and friends of those buried in the common grave walk to see what Arturo has uncovered. In addition to the skeletons, they find a baby rattle and a wedding ring, signs of family ties to the missing fathers and grandfathers. The solemn viewing of the grave is a quick and easy resolution of the entire story, complete with making the couple. Almodóvar’s effort to link the issues of mothering and children to the Spanish Civil War appears designed to lend some weight and complexity to a story that’s all too predictable. If that seems a stretch, it is. It doesn’t work.
Above, Penélope Cruz, his frequent muse,
in the eye of Director Pedro Almodóvar's camera.
Known for his melodramas featuring women and queer culture, Almodóvar employs both in “Parallel Mothers.” Cruz has been his muse (she’s appeared in 7 of his last 11 films) and, for this film, has been nominated by the Academy for Best Actress. With the exception of one scene, in which Janis goes to pieces during a confessional moment with Ana, the script doesn’t offer Cruz the opportunity for expression of emotion, and she is only adequate at suggesting the day-to-day anguish she must feel. Grunting during childbirth isn’t enough, and perhaps she’s too much a pretty, recognizable face. Smit, who has been acknowledged for her role in Spanish film circles but not by the Academy, is just as good if not better. Ana’s migration from puerile teen to young adult who wants “control of my life” is striking and vivid, and she more than holds her own in that confessional moment, where her response is not what one would expect.
Neither solid acting from the main characters, nor the director’s clumsy attempt to lend the story historical depth, can save this film from its essence: a predictable melodrama about the well-worn, and now trendy, subject of motherhood.
Director: Pedro Almodóvar
Starring: Penélope Cruz, Milena Smit, Aitana Sánchez-Gijón, Israel Elejalde
Countries: Spain, France
Language: Spanish, subtitled in English
Runtime: 123 minutes
Oscar Nominations: Best Actress (Penélope Cruz) and Best Original Score (Alberto Iglesias)
Other Awards: 16 wins and 78 nominations