Who we love and why we love them is as much a product of bloodline as it is of circumstance, of conditioning, of initial connection
In 1980, beloved Spanish writer-director Pedro Almodóvar dove into his first feature-length exploration of the maternal via Pepi, Luci, Bom and Other Girls Like Mom. Thirty-one years and twenty-one features later, he’s still excavating motherhood, at times quite literally. Parallel Mothers begins with a familial gravesite that gives way to an overarching genealogical narrative, which is left behind early on and revisited in the final moments like a proper bookend.
No matter where the film goes, it always comes back to family, whether they’re in the bed next to our lead or in the ground. The majority of Parallel Mothers takes place between the genealogical bookends within a telenovela-esque plotline that twists and turns to unexpected places, which is complimented nicely by longtime collaborator Alberto Iglesias’s smooth, brassy, spy-thriller-like score (the same man who scored Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and The Constant Gardener, mind you). The narrative beats are heightened and melodramatic, but the performances are grounded and realistic – a stiff-arm to the theatrical soap approach.
After a more thematically focused introduction and some rough, happy daytime sex, Almodóvar sets the stage for the emotional rollercoaster to come with a dueling pregnancy sequence in which Janis (Penélope Cruz in her seventh Almodóvar feature) and Ana (terrific newcomer Milena Smit) have their babies simultaneously as the camera bounces back and forth between pushes and screams.
Ana is young and afraid, a soon-to-be single mother who’ll have to live at home with her fame-hungry actor mother Teresa (Aitana Sánchez-Gijón), who disapproves of Ana’s choice to have the child. Janis – named after Janis Joplin, whose smoky vocals ignite some steamy romance in the film – is a confident, career-driven, single-by-choice fortysomething who never cared or expected to have a child but sees the happy accident as an invitation to a wonderful new chapter of life.
Connected merely through circumstance (hospital roommates), the two split ways once it’s time to go home but not without exchanging numbers. We skip forward some months only to find Ana – whose long, dark hair has transformed into a spiky blonde boyish cut – waiting on Janis at a café, both surprised to see each other and eager to catch up. What unfolds from there deserves to be experienced unspoiled, but rest assured you won’t see it coming. And it happens quickly, thanks to incredible performances from both Cruz and Smit.
Much of Almodóvar’s exploration of motherhood can be whittled down to single motherhood. And much of his interest in (single) motherhood can be boiled down to an even more universal theme across his work: womanhood. While the competition in his filmography is fierce, Parallel Mothers sticks out as one of his finest expressions – one of his most acute and complex angles on the topic.
Parallel Mothers is just as concerned with the identities and realities of Janis and Ana as women as it is with them as mothers, if not more so, especially when it comes to the glaring differences between them in class and ethnicity. Where Janis is a successful photographer who can bankroll a nanny’s salary without batting an eye, Ana is simply trying to make ends meet, leaning unfortunately on the finances of her self-obsessed mother. But Almodóvar doesn’t make it that easy.
Ana, in her youthful ignorance and familial denial, doesn’t understand the ugly history of the Spanish Civil War that lurks beneath them, echoing the calls of colorist supremacy that Ana’s fair-skinned bourgeoisie descendants would’ve touted as good reason for extermination of the darker-skinned lower classes that fill out Janis’s lineage. And Janis needs to Ana to know, to remember, just like Almodóvar needs us to. The bookends are there for a reason.
By bringing the gravesite of Janis’s murdered descendants – which she wants professionally unearthed in order to give her great grandparents proper burials – back into the picture, Almodóvar stretches the narrative across four generations of women. From buried great grandmother to newly born daughter, he brings the theme of intergenerational trauma to the forefront, spotlighting the overlooked atrocities of the Spanish Civil War in an effort to entrench them in our collective memory.
However, Ana’s role/significance in Janis’s life, which has no basis in bloodlines but only happenstance, elucidates another major theme at the heart of Almodóvar’s career: “family” takes on many forms. Janis’s backstory shows how lineage is a beautiful and painful part of who we are, whether we like it or not, while Ana’s trajectory reminds us that some of our most beloved family members are chosen. Who we love and why we love them is just as much a product of circumstance, of conditioning, of connection.
There is one real warning to heed before going into Parallel Mothers: beware of any budding desires within yourself or your partner to have a child. I, single and simply uninterested, was not prone to this danger and I was still afflicted. So, really, be careful. Movies can changes lives, and Parallel Mothers is so emotionally engaging, it borders on a call to generational action – a call to procreation. And while the compelling effect is no doubt a reflection of a powerfully crafted picture, acting on it might strap you into a narrative whirlwind. Trust me, I’ve seen Parallel Mothers.