Only Pedro Almodóvar could wrap a cry of pain about Spain’s inability to come to terms with its recent dark history into a gorgeous-looking melodrama about two mothers drawn by fate into a complicated, painful and ultimately nourishing relationship.
Janis (Penélope Cruz, in her seventh collaboration with the director of All About My Mother) is a stylish Madrid photographer who engages a forensic anthropologist, Arturo (Israel Elejalde), to help recover the remains of her great-grandfather in a mass grave in her family’s village. That quest then recedes from our view for a while – hidden but still haunting, you could say – as Janis has a brief relationship with Arturo, the result of which is a baby girl.
It’s in the maternity ward (painted a lovely green; this is still an Almodóvar film) where she meets teenaged Ana (Milena Smit), also giving birth to a girl. From there, Janis and Ana’s lives cross, with various extreme twists and revelations of the sort that Almodóvar can orchestrate so brilliantly, with the performances, music, design and photography all working in exquisite lockstep.
Entering Almodóvar’s world is a pleasure, even when we’re faced with pain and tough lessons
As ever with Almodóvar’s films, to enter his world is a pleasure – even when we’re faced with pain and tough lessons. Cruz is terrific here as Janis, a woman trying to mould reality around her own desires and suffering hugely along the way. As ever, Almodóvar is no great moral judge lording over all this. His films are massive exercises in empathy and in opening up our eyes to how lives can be led differently and openly. But he has a lot to say in Parallel Mothers about the destruction of burying the truth under the carpet, on the personal level, but also – and back to those graves – on the level of a whole nation.
Out now in the US and in UK cinemas Jan 28.