Parallel Mothers (Cert 15)

Theatrical (Distributor: Pathé) Running Time: 123 minutes approx.

Bloodlines are not just our way of keeping a family name or heritage alive but to ensure history is never forgotten. The past is often buried to advantage the few, but as times change, questions are asked by successive generations who want answers and honour their ancestors.

40 year-old magazine photographer Janis (Penélope Cruz) asks forensic archaeologist Arturo (Israel Elejalde) if his foundation would support her in having a mass grave in her hometown excavated, her great-grandfather being one of the victims buried there. They sleep together despite Arturo being married, but Janis decides to have the baby alone. At the maternity hospital, she rooms with terrified teenager Ana (Milena Smit) and both babies are born almost simultaneously.

Arturo learns of baby Cecilia and pays Janis a visit to see her but questions his paternity, making Janis paranoid, so she does a maternity test which yields a result she decides to keep to herself. Janis then meets Ana again at a café and asks her to be Cecilia’s live in nanny after learning Ana’s baby Anita passed away from cot death. As the pair become closer, Janis struggles with keeping her secret.

Following the male-centric not really a semi-autobiography departure that was Pain And Glory, everyone’s favourite Spanish auteur puts the women back in the spotlight for this itchy drama. Almodóvar returns to the subject of motherhood, but as ever there is a twist and in this case, it is a corker. But he has more to say with Parallel Mothers than delivering another taut melodrama, hence the seemingly disparate opening act.

Whereas some filmmakers go on a direct offensive when they want to challenge their country’s political or social flaws, or vent about certain people or events, Almodóvar isn’t one of them, presumably because even he couldn’t turn into a colourful camp fiesta. So, the alternative is to approach it from a different angle, and whilst it may not be quite so obvious, the topic here is the erasing of history.

Janis’ quest to have her grandfathers grave excavated bookends the film, save for the odd mention of it the middle, relegating it to an afterthought for most of the run time. It may seem odd for someone of Almodóvar’s pedigree to be so lapse regarding such an important detail but this is a ruse – he pulls it together in the end with a symbolic, poignant sledgehammer blow of quiet profundity and majesty.

To get us to this point we have the soap opera-esque drama of the titular mothers and their parallel lives. They do have more in common than coincidental timing of conception – both are single, both have absent parents, and both are fiercely independent. Ana’s story is the more complex of the two, as her parents are both alive but separated by law and geography. Ana lived with her father until she got pregnant, and was sent her back to her mother Teresa (Aitana Sánchez-Gijón).

In all fairness, Teresa is trying her best with Ana but as an aspiring actress in her late 40s and on her last chance at stardom, she prefers the stage to the delivery room. This at least might explain why Ana was so terrified of giving birth, as opposed to Janis who was over the moon and not concerned with being a single mum. Janis was raised by her grandmother  after her mother died of a drug overdose aged 27, a huge clue as to where the name Janis came from.

Unfortunately, life after birth for our new mums provides not just the meat of the drama but also the risk of spoiling much of the developments so we’ll leave the plot discussion there. Unusually for Almodóvar, this twist is something more at home in Eastenders but it is functional in exploring the themes of family bonds and motherhood, whilst handled with considerable panache and raw, gnawing tumult.

Mothers of three generations are profiled here – Ana the teen, Janis the late starter, and Teresa, barely older than Janis but with a patchy report card. Almodóvar has always written his mothers to find the maternal bond whether they are blood related or not; this makes Teresa interesting insofar as to how she lost Ana to her ex-husband and the way this influences her awkward attempts to reconnect with Ana now.

Strong women being Almodóvar’s forte means the few men present are either props or symbols of social conformity. Arturo has a little more substance but with a caveat – his wife is having treatment for cancer while he carries on with Janis but he won’t leave her. The one male who escapes such censure is Janis’ great-grandfather, a victim of Franco’s reign of terror, a forgotten remnant of an atrocity swept under the carpet of political and tyrannical abuse of power.

Penélope Cruz has been an Almodóvar muse for 25 years and with whom she does her best work. Volver might be considered her apex, but Cruz pushes herself as Janis in a tightly calibrated performance that towers above the occasional lapse in credibility. Also impressing with a layered turn of teenage angst and assured maturity is Milena Smit, a relative newcomer I am sure we’ll see associated with Almodóvar again in the future.   

Given the emotional turbulence of the story, it doesn’t seem possible Almodóvar could infuse the screen with his trademark fondness for colour but again, he confounds our expectations. The only thing I did find distracting was in the close up shots where the usual blurred background for depth of focus is eschewed, making the backgrounds look too close to the actors. Weird.

Ending with a powerful visual statement likely to be the closest Almodóvar will get to being political on screen, Parallel Mothers doesn’t suggest we ask for forgiveness for hiding our mistakes, rather it demands we recognise them lest they come back to haunt us one day, even if it takes a future generation to bring them to light.

 

Rating – ****

Man In Black

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