Parallel Mothers is the latest film from the always reliable Pedro Almodóvar. The script has been around for a while, and there was even a poster for the then-fictional film Parallel Mothers in 2009’s Broken Embraces. The time for him to fine-tune the script is probably down to it being the first film where he really deals with the Spanish Civil War— although his films generally don’t explicitly deal with the Civil War and General Franco’s dictatorship, they are all a reaction to growing up under Franco.
Janis Martínez (Penélope Cruz) is a middle-aged photographer who sleeps with the forensic archaeologist Arturo (Israel Elejalde), who knocks her up—but she decides to be a single mother, despite Arturo’s desire to be with her. This is after he agrees to review a case about funding the excavation of a mass grave in her home village, which the foundation he works for has been sitting on for a while. She has the child, and shares a hospital room with a teenage mother-to-be, Ana (Milena Smit). They become friendly. Arturo stops by and has some suspicions that he isn’t the father. Janis takes a maternity test and confirms his suspicion: the babies were swapped.
The performances from the two women are fantastic, as you would expect from Almodóvar. Cruz probably should’ve won best actress at the Oscars over Jessica Chastain, bizarrely it wasn’t submitted for the Spanish foreign film entry, so the Javier Bardem (Cruz’s husband) vehicle The Good Boss was submitted but didn’t get nominated. As is typically the case in films from Almodóvar, the two women are complicated and interesting, and their relationship has many surprising twists and turns. There is a rape twist in the film, also as usual with Almodóvar, and I know some younger viewers struggle to get over his reliance on rape as a plot twist, but it’s done more “tastefully” than some of his films and is more rooted in the character details.
In the end, Parallel Mothers is about the intergenerational trauma that resulted from the Spanish Civil War and the decades-long reign of Franco (who died in 1975) through the story of mothers. I know some people have felt the civil war subplot feels like it’s from another film, but it worked for me. The Spanish Civil War has been something Almodóvar has deliberately avoided tackling, bar the opening of Live Flesh, throughout his career but the way he integrates it reflects how Spanish society is only now starting to come to terms with what happened and the events they lived through.
Parallel Mothers may not be my favourite Almodóvar by any means, and might not even crack my personal top 10 of his films. That, however, is more a mark of the consistency of his filmmaking over five decades than the film’s quality.
There was a rumour that is still on the film’s Wikipedia page that Almodóvar tried to integrate a role for Anya Taylor-Joy into the film somehow. The director has debunked this, and I don’t really how you could add a third lead to this story, which is so much about these two women. Regardless, Taylor-Joy is strongly rumoured to be appearing in Almodóvar’s long-awaited English-language feature debut, A Manual for Cleaning Women, which has Cate Blanchett cast in the lead.
The Blu-Ray disc contains four incredibly short featurettes which total under ten minutes—but at least the disc has some extras, unlike the US release from Sony. Maybe they are holding out on the extras for a Criterion release over there.