Bil’s rating (out of 5): BBB
Original Title: Madres paralelas
Spain, 2021. El Deseo, Pathe, Radio Televisión Española, Remotamente Films, Sony Pictures Entertainment. Screenplay by Pedro Almodóvar. Cinematography by Jose Luis Alcaine. Produced by Agustín Almodóvar, Esther García. Music by Alberto Iglesias. Production Design by Antxon Gomez. Costume Design by Paola Torres. Film Editing by Teresa Font
Penelope Cruz plays Janis, a photographer who is doing a session with a forensic anthropologist Arturo (Israel Elejalde) and asks him if he would be interested in a personal project relating to her family’s past. Her great-grandfather is one of a number of bodies buried in her ancestral village, piled in an unmarked mass grave after the horrors of the Spanish Civil war, and she wants to exhume them and identify the remains so that she and her family’s community can have a peaceful resolution for their loss.
Janis begins a passionate affair with the married Arturo, which results in her getting pregnant and deciding to have the child on her own. Cut to her hospital room as she is preparing to give birth and meets her roommate, Ana (Milena Smit), another expectant mother and college student who is also single and nervous about her impending arrival. The two become friends and comfort each other, ending up giving birth on the exact same day, then months later they are put back in touch and resume their friendship, but there’s a very dramatic bomb waiting to go off at the centre of this burgeoning relationship: Cruz has had a big falling out with the father of her child and it has lead to a devastating revelation, one which she holds off on sharing when Ana becomes her nanny and moves into her house and eventually, in a curious twist of events, her bed.
Pedro Almodovar touches on many familiar tropes in this touching tale of love, loss and history that will comfort fans of his earlier melodramatic successes, reworking a few themes from Volver and All About My Mother (Aitana Sánchez-Gijón is a new generation of Marisa Parades’s Huma Rojo) and casting familiar faces in supporting roles (Rossy de Palma, Julieta Serrano). The great maestro and celebrated Spanish enfant terrible has taken on a more sober approach to his explorations of emotional depths in his recent films, it is rather surprising to see a plot deeply familiar to soap opera viewers being treated with so little excessive juiciness, even for him. Sometimes this is to the movie’s benefit, Cruz is wholly credible and sympathetic as she falls slowly apart because of her inability to tell the truth, and the restraint surrounding her only makes it that much more powerful to experience, but other times it feels that the screenplay, which links big themes of the past to more intimate ones of the present, is constructed from pieces that fit together a bit too neatly.
The romance angle between the two women doesn’t have the vulnerability of the more volatile love affairs that Almodovar usually pits between subtly complex women and nakedly aggressive men, his tribute to Persona is clinical and appears to make him uncomfortable, while the end’s return to the story about mass graves and unearthing crimes of history, which conveniently ties in with the main character’s own ambivalence about dealing with the past, is too intellectually sound to feel honest.
This film is just not arresting enough, the vibrant characters that he usually gives you no choice but to fall in love with are kept at a remove; Almodovar does, however, include his trademark visual style, with cinematography that makes you want to put the screen on a plate and eat it, and maintains his penchant for always giving his characters enough care and consideration to find their way out of even the worst of their seemingly impassable conflicts.
Academy Award Nominations: Best Actress (Penelope Cruz); Best Original Score
Golden Globe Award Nominations: Best Original Score; Best Foreign Language Film
Venice Film Festival Award: Best Actress (Penelope Cruz)