Movie Review: Parallel Mothers

This was never going to be a bad review.

I just love Pedro Almodóvar too much for that. Even his films that aren’t stone-cold cinematic masterpieces have a place in my heart. There’s something about his blend of melodrama, his vibrant eye for setting and scene, and his brilliant stable of actors that has rendered it nigh-on impossible for me not to love everything that I’ve seen by him. I knew that, going into his latest, Parallel Mothers, a film with a title so comically him that it couldn’t have come from anyone else. But still – this is more than just not a bad review. This is a downright glowing one.

Following two expectant mothers, Ana (Milena Smit) and Janis (Penelope Cruz) as they give birth at the same time to babies conceived in completely different circumstances and life stages, Parallel Mothers is a typical Pedro melodrama, and, like so many of his films, is a story of the strange and complex relationships women – and especially mothers – share with one another.

The thing I’ve always loved about his movies is how he takes plots packed with abject silliness and treats the characters in them like real people. If I were to sit down and tell you the ins and outs of the story, it would sound more like it came from a telenovela than it did a prestige movie getting heaps of Oscar buzz, but that’s his mastery. But despite the absurdity, he treats the people at the heart of this story with compassion, and it’s through that he is able to find such emotional depth. Well, that, and the fact that Penelope Cruz commands the screen and her performance here in such a way that makes it impossible not to take her seriously, while Milena Smit more than matches her as the hopeful but fearful Ana.

Much like his last, Pain and Glory, there’s a sense of melancholy that winds through Parallel Mothers. A lot of this comes from the subplot revolving around the reclamation of bodies in unmarked graves left during the preceding century’s war, and it’s the mature but unflinching handling of this subject that really elevates this movie into brilliance. Wrapping a huge cultural and historical wound for Spain itself around a high-drama baby-swapping plot isn’t something that many writer-directors could pull off, but Almodovar doesn’t just do it – he does it in a way that allows both stories to inform each other. What we owe our families and our history, if we owe them anything at all, is at the heart of Parallel Mothers.

Filled with his usual sumptuous, sun-soaked, saturated cinematography and just-the-right-side-of-chaotic mise-en-scene, this movie is yet another classic under Almodovar‘s belt. As he develops as a filmmaker, his ability to bring together the expansive genre-hopping of his work into one cohesive whole just gets better and better. Parallel Mothers is a masterpiece – and that’s all this particularly glowing review needs you to know.

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By Louise MacGregor

(header image via Variety)

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