There is a certain chemistry between writer/director Pedro Almodóvar and actress Penelope Cruz. Over the past quarter century, the pair have collaborated on seven previous films, each one furthering their own skills as storytellers while seemingly drawing inspiration from working with each. And now their eight work, Parallel Mothers, pays off those years with their best pairing yet, one that not only showcases a very humanistic story, but which pushes the director into hitherto untrod political territory.
Cruz stars as Janis, a photographer in Madrid who finds herself pregnant after a fling with Arturo (Israel Elejalde). A relationship between the two is out of the question as Arturo is married, and his wife is dying of cancer. Rather than get an abortion, Janis decides she will raise the child herself. When she arrives at the hospital to give birth, she is shares a room with Ana (Milena Smit), a pregnant teenager who has no real support system to reply on.
Janis and Ana form an unlikely friendship as they await their transformation into mothers. After their release from the hospital they lose contact with each other until some time later fate reconnects them. Their lives become intertwined and as they grow to know each other complications arise and secrets – including one which strained the credulity of the film, but would have broken it completely in the hands of a lesser director – are revealed.
Penelope Cruz is working at the height of her powers here, although you might not even notice. She presents Janis with such an aura of naturalism about her that you don’t even see the performance, just the character. Even when the script teeters towards the melodramatic, Cruz keeps things firmly rooted.
And for as wonderful as Cruz’s performance is, attention should also be given to Cruz’s co-star, Milena Smit. A good portion of the film rests on her shoulders as well, and she is firmly up to the task. In only her second feature film role, she manages to give a performance that compliments Cruz’s and never compares unfavorably to her co-star.
But underneath the film’s main plot of kitchen sink drama and romantic complications is something far more political. Arturo is a forensic archaeologist who works with a group studying the remains of those killed during the Spanish Civil War and the four decades of dictatorial rule that followed. They excavate sites believed to have been mass graves from the war hoping to get a better idea of what happened during that time and to give still grieving families a sense of closure. Almodóvar is usually not very political, but it is easy to see how this story of two women confronting their own issues about their past as they prepare personal futures for their children is the allegory for Spain needing to face its own relatively recent troubled past as it continues forward into the 21st century.