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In ‘Parallel Mothers,’ Almodóvar Tries to Make the Personal Political

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Two pregnant women in hospital gowns stand with their bellies nearly touching.
Milena Smit as Ana and Penélope Cruz as Janis in Pedro Almodóvar's 'Parallel Mothers.' (© El Deseo; photo by Iglesias Más; courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics)

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.

A woman hugs a baby against her
Penélope Cruz as Janis in ‘Parallel Mothers.’ ( © El Deseo; photo by Iglesias Más; courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics)

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.

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Almodóvar excels at evoking the atmosphere of movies from the Golden Age of Hollywood, emulating auteurs like Douglas Sirk. Every emotion is heightened. Every plot point stretched to the limits of plausibility. Viewers can lose themselves in this soapy, operatic version of reality without pausing to ask, “Do people really behave like this?” And that’s due in large part to Penélope Cruz.

Four adults and a baby stand in a field
Rossy de Palma as Elena, Israel Elejalde as Arturo, Penélope Cruz as Janis, Milena Smit as Ana in ‘Parallel Mothers.’ (© El Deseo; photo by Iglesias Más; courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics)

Cruz’s Janis is sad-eyed, sympathetic and as withholding as an independent cat can be. We learn that her bohemian mother, who named her daughter after Janis Joplin, died when she was young. That relationship informs the fierce attachment Janis experiences when she becomes the mother of a newborn. She’s the embodiment of what it means to be a good mother—until she isn’t. At the hospital where Janis gives birth, Almodóvar introduces Ana (Milena Smit), another younger mother-to-be, into the narrative. Ana’s life and backstory get enmeshed with Janis, while the Franco murders are sidelined.

All those interior shots of Janis’ green garden apartment—she’s an Eve who doesn’t seem to need an Adam—eventually correspond with the film’s larger themes of excavation and regeneration. On an open expanse of lush, verdant land, Arturo finds the bodies the village has been looking for. Arturo and Janis even drive there in a neon green SUV. While Janis and Ana have been contending with their own family troubles, the survivors of Franco’s regime try to come to terms with their personal grief and the country’s historical trauma.

Two women sit at a patio table, plants behind them
Milena Smit as Ana, Penélope Cruz as Janis in ‘Parallel Mothers.’ (© El Deseo; photo by Iglesias Más; courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics)

The director unfolds a series of parallels, between Janis and Ana, and by extension between each woman and her own mother. But connecting the personal and the political may feel forced, and like one parallel too many for non-Spaniards who can only glean anecdotal information about Franco’s lasting impact on the country.

When Almodóvar foregrounds a single character—in films like All About My Mother (1999) and Pain and Glory (2019)—his movies are universally affecting. In comparison, Parallel Mothers is a sentimental journey, an earnest and benign compromise. For some reason, the director wasn’t satisfied with the limits of Janis and Ana’s particular psychodrama. At the end, it felt like he was on the verge of having the assassinated villagers tell their own specific stories and then, out of respect for the dead, retreated, not daring to speak for them directly.

‘Parallel Mothers’ is now playing in Bay Area theaters.

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