In Parallel Mothers, the Spanish filmmaker Pedro Almodóvar indicates his current mood by painting the world in subdued shades of somber green. The hue appears in any number of incarnations, from sage to clover to moss. Most notably, it’s the color of his main character Janis’ apartment. Played by Almodóvar’s frequent collaborator Penélope Cruz, Janis has painted every room, every line of trim, a green that fans of Farrow & Ball would swoon over. The bathroom alone is a tropical fantasia, with green extending upwards to the curtains and across the shimmering tile counters and floor.
These green interiors are a pronounced departure from Almodóvar’s previous visual schemes, which usually incorporate an array of bold, arresting reds—the color of a recently vivisected heart. Fittingly, his melodramatic plot lines are suffused with passion and desire, fury and love.
Here, Parallel Mothers’ shift to green represents a psychological shift from romantic to familial love. The film covers the emotional territory of maternal indifference, attachment and abandonment. Think of it as a Spanish companion to Maggie Gyllenhaal’s recent adaptation of The Lost Daughter. These doleful movies explore the demanding roles of motherhood, being a daughter, or both at the same time.
Parallel Mothers ambitiously frames Janis’ personal drama within the larger context of Francisco Franco’s dictatorial regime in Spain. Several people from the village where Janis grew up, including members of her family, were killed when Franco was in power. According to the movie, there are unmarked, mass graves in every corner of the country. On behalf of her hometown, Janis seeks out an archeologist to excavate a plot of land where they suspect the bodies were unceremoniously buried.
Arturo (Israel Elejalde) agrees to investigate, and, while beginning his research, he and Janis fall in love. The signposts that tell you “This is an Almodóvar melodrama!” quickly start to add up. Arturo is married. He’d leave his wife for Janis in a heartbeat, except for the fact that she’s dying of cancer. Janis accepts his predicament and decides to raise their baby alone when she discovers she’s pregnant with his child. And that’s just a summary of the first 30 minutes.