Friday, January 28, 2022

Parallel Mothers – excavating the secrets of Franco and two new mums – Cruz wows in latest box office collaboration with Almodóvar (QFT until 3 Feb)

Two strong ideas are woven together in Pedro Almodóvar’s Parallel Mothers, both concerned with unpicking what has happened in the past and finding a resolution. Neither situation is easy nor painless.

There’s an exploration of the ongoing trauma of the Spanish Civil War, with the painstaking excavation of a mass grave whose site in a local field has been passed down through the generations of local people. One of the final scenes at that graveside is allowed to become the emotional fulcrum of the film, rather than milking so many of the earlier, more predictable scenes, a decision that gives Parallel Mothers an extra helping of gravitas.

The main storyline observes what happens after two mothers meet in a labour ward and give birth to daughters on the same day. Janis (Penélope Cruz) is a 40-year-old commercial photographer who is pregnant as a result of an affair with a married man. 

Across the room, another much younger single mother, Ana (Milena Smit), is also breathing through her contractions. After the two reconnect some months later, each eventually realises that the other is carrying significant trauma that now casts an ethical shadow over their own wellbeing.

Linking the two concepts together is forensic anthropologist and sporadic lover Arturo (Israel Elejalde) who can tell a lot about someone whether they are buried in the ground or lying in a cot.

Themes of separation, loss, reunion, withholding truth, and what it means to be a good parent run throughout the two-hour film. The most honest character is Ana’s abominable mother Teresa with Aitana Sánchez-Gijón beautifully capturing her character’s awareness of her self-centredness.

The introduction of the central conceit of the film – I’m not going to spoil you with specifics in this review – happens quite early on, and while a little difficult to swallow, once you get over that brief moment of ingestion, the rest of the movie’s meal is tasty. While the final encounter at the graveside is moving, the choice of final image was a step too far, perhaps the opposite of Almodóvar’s poor payoff six years ago at the end of Julieta.

Almodóvar can certainly write strong women characters, and Cruz’s performance under his direction – their seventh collaboration – is an incredible display of her talent. Janis can be confident and in control, fragile and broken, assertive, hurt and submissive. This is a far better vehicle for Cruz than The 355 (which is still playing in some local cinemas), and a much more satisfying watch than Almodóvar’s 2019 Pain and Glory. The director also knows how to work a colour scheme, always brings food into his stories (revelling in an actor eating messily), and makes a movie that was filmed under Covid conditions with a very small cast feel much large and airy.

For me, Parallel Mothers is be up there with Licorice Pizza as my joint top film for January. Catch it in Queen’s Film Theatre before Thursday 3 February.


PS: Geometric pedants will note that the mothers are converging (their timelines meet long before infinity) rather than parallel (not touching)! 

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