20 June 2024

Film Review – Parallel Mothers (2021)

An Almodóvar film is always an event. Whether it’s because of the acting, the vibrant colours, the sheer spirit of his movies or the whole package, he never fails to give his audience an abundance of riches. His latest, Parallel Mothers, opened to acclaim  – leading lady Penelope Cruz especially – at Venice last year and, once again, there’s much to enjoy. But this time it’s a film with an agenda that lingers in the wings until almost until the very end.

Cruz is Janis, a successful and determinedly single photographer, who discovers she’s pregnant as the result of an affair. Resolving to raise her child as a single mother, just like her mother and grandmother before her, she goes into hospital to give birth and meets teenager Ana (Milena Smit) in the maternity ward. Her reasons may be different, but she’s decided to follow the same path as Janis and the two women become close. The demands of motherhood cause a hiatus in their friendship, but when they meet again by chance, they eventually find they’re linked more closely than they realised. And it’s a way that causes heartbreak.

Almodóvar‘s engaging drama is full of mix-ups and moral dilemmas, occasionally with a touch of characteristic farce and certainly told with energy and humour. It hardly matters that you can see the birth-swap theme coming, as it helps build the emotion, a hint of dread, and the wish that the obvious won’t turn out to be the truth. But there’s more to it than that: we’re told that new-born babies carry the ghosts of their past and, beneath the surface, the film does exactly the same, taking us into a darker side of Spanish history – the Civil War was only 90 years ago – and examining the pain and grief that has passed down from generation to generation. The two ideas don’t always sit together comfortably, but the warmth and compassionate spirit of the film and its director are so palpable that to highlight the flaw sounds almost heartless.

It does help to have a smattering of knowledge about Spanish history and culture. The backdrop of the country’s civil war in the 1930s, which brought the fascists to power – a dictatorship that lasted until 1975 – is ever present, despite the chic apartments and café society of today’s Madrid. It’s hinted at elsewhere, most notably through Ana’s actress mother, who goes on tour in a production of Dona Rosita The Spinster, written by 1930s Spanish playwright Federico Garcia Lorca, who was murdered during the Civil War and whose plays were banned in his home country until the end of the dictatorship. The film’s cultural aspect gives it an added fascination as we watch Janis’s developing relationship with both her child and Ana, as well as the twists and turns that go with her lover keeping her dangling on an emotional string.

It’s all anchored in Cruz’s flawless performance, one full of passion yet which never feels over the top. She’s well matched by Smit, whose Ana enlists our sympathy, despite being a difficult character to like. In what is perhaps an overly-ambitious film, Almodóvar seeks to shed light and spread soothing balm on a painful period in history which still influences the present day. It may not always work, but its message of hope and its generosity are impossible to resist.


Drama | Cert: 15 | UK Cinemas, 28 January 2022 | Pathe | Dir. Pedro Almodovar | Penelope Cruz, Milena Smit, Israel Elejalde and Rossy de Palma.

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