That magical connection between Pedro Almodóvar and Penelope Cruz continues to grow stronger and burn brighter with “Parallel Mothers,” their eighth film together over the past quarter century. The Spanish maestro knows precisely how to get all the colors out of his charismatic muse, and in turn, the veteran star takes his material and makes it feel both fiery and grounded.
This time, they tell a story that’s simultaneously personal and political. It’s an intimate tale of two women and their intertwined lives, but it’s also about Spain’s troubled history, and the way strong women are linked for generations through the past, even as they help each other forge a happier future. Sounds like a lot, plus “Parallel Mothers” is indeed chock full of Almodóvar’s signature brand of melodrama. But the performances always make the film feel substantive and authentic, particularly the interplay between its two very different stars.
Cruz plays Janis, an accomplished photographer living in Madrid. On the verge of turning 40, she becomes pregnant from a fling she has with Arturo (Israel Elejalde), a handsome and charming forensic archaeologist. She happens to give birth on the same day as another single mom, 17-year-old Ana (the striking Milena Smit), her roommate at the hospital. From those earliest, kindhearted conversations, the two women find themselves connecting in myriad, unexpected ways during one of the most vulnerable and thrilling times in their lives. They share all the elation and exhaustion and more. To elaborate further spoil the many twists and turns Almodóvar takes in “Parallel Mothers,” but suffice it to say, they are doozies.
But while the bones of his script may seem soapy, and the propulsive, string-heavy score from his frequent composer, the brilliant Alberto Iglesias, even calls to mind a horror film at times, “Parallel Mothers” never spins wildly into camp. Cruz is radiant and earthy, sexy and funny as Janis, and because she’s so gifted and so entirely on Almodovar’s wavelength, she maintains an emotional connection with the audience through all of her character’s extreme highs and lows. Smit, meanwhile, shines in an understated way in a more low-key role and enjoys a sparky connection with Cruz on several levels. Ana isn’t nearly as enthusiastic about becoming a mother as Janis is, but her maternal instincts evolve in ways that are warm and heart-wrenching. “It’ll all work out,” Janis tells Ana early and often, and that bright optimism extends to every element of her life, including her wardrobe and décor. The vibrant shade of red we see everywhere—from her cardigan and camera bag to her stroller and Baby Bjorn—is such an Almodovar trademark, they should name a nail polish after him. (Several of the director’s longtime collaborators return to give a “Parallel Mothers” its chic and dramatic look, including production designer Antxón Gómez and cinematographer José Luis Alcaine.)
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But it wouldn’t be an Almodóvar film if one of his favorite players, Rossy de Palma (“Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown,” “Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!”), didn’t show up. Here, she plays Janis’ best friend, Elena, swooping into her hospital room in a Technicolor-plaid trench coat, generously offering no-nonsense support and advice. On the other end of the spectrum is Ana’s mother, Teresa (Aitana Sánchez-Gijón), a narcissistic actress who only truly lights up when she’s talking about how well she did in an audition (although her evolution is one of the film’s many revelations).
All these women and so many more find themselves interconnected as the film’s historical themes emerge. Snippets of conversation about how the Spanish Civil War interrupted and devastated countless lives, which Almodóvar had interspersed throughout, ultimately come to the fore. Decades later, these families continue feeling reverberations of the losses they suffered. It’s a big, emotional topic for Almodóvar to get his arms around, and some of the transitions may feel slightly awkward along the way. But in approaching this subject through the prism of a more personal and relatable story of motherhood and friendship, he makes it accessible.
It’s as if Almodóvar has achieved a magic trick, lulling us into familiarity with his usual performers, colors and themes before surprising us with what he really wants to say. “Parallel Mothers” may look simple at the outset with its high-concept, dramatic premise, but it eventually reveals that it has much more on its mind, and in its heart.