“Two wonderful central performances by Almodóvar veteran Penélope Cruz and his new muse Milena Smit, however, are worth the price of admission alone, as they almost single-handedly save the disjointed film around them.”
The truth is buried and dug up again several times and on several levels in Pedro Almodóvar’s latest film Madres paralelas (Parallel Mothers), be they interpersonal or socio-political. It is important to know the truth of both your personal and your country’s history, posits the Spanish helmer. But just as the two mothers at the center of the film operate in parallel, so do these narrative thematic storylines, and Almodóvar never really manages to make them satisfyingly come together. This makes Madres paralelas a pleasurable watch that sadly doesn’t dig quite deep enough to make its meaning (and perhaps even warning) go beyond platitudes. Two wonderful central performances by Almodóvar veteran Penélope Cruz and his new muse Milena Smit, however, are worth the price of admission alone, as they almost single-handedly save the disjointed film around them.
Janis (Cruz) is a successful photographer in Madrid. On one of her shoots, her subject is Arturo (Israel Elejalde), a forensic archaeologist. Janis is looking for means to get a mass grave in her rural hometown opened, one in which her great-grandfather, murdered during the Spanish Civil War, supposedly was buried. Arturo might be a way to make that happen. He does more than that though, as the two begin a passionate relationship which ends in Janis getting pregnant. And that is indeed where it ends, because the married Arturo does not want to have anything to do with the child. For Janis as a woman in a line of single mothers this is no issue. While in hospital to prepare for the delivery she meets Ana (Smit) and her mother Teresa (Aitana Sánchez-Gijón). Ana, a young adult still, is also going to give birth to a fatherless child, as her pregnancy is the result of a harrowing story that will be revealed later in the film and which holds an important piece of the puzzle Janis will eventually have to solve. Their similar situation creates a bond between the two prospective mothers, and they remain in contact after their daughters are born. Janis’ child Cecilia has certain features that over time sow doubt in Janis’ mind: the child has an ‘ethnic’ look, as Janis’ best friend Elena (Almodóvar regular Rossy de Palma) puts it, something Janis ascribes to the Venezuelan blood in her ancestry. But it keeps gnawing at her, so eventually she takes a maternity test that shows the inevitable: Cecilia is not her child. But who is?
At this point Ana reappears in her life. Janis had broken off contact after a while, but by chance the young woman presents herself again, working at a café near Janis’ home. It doesn’t take long for Janis to hear Ana’s story: her daughter Anita died in a so-called crib death. Taken aback, and combining this information with her suspicions regarding the true mother of Cecilia, Janis takes in Ana to replace her terrible au pair. Under false pretenses she makes the gullible Ana take a maternity test as well, and the result is not hard to guess: Ana is Cecilia’s real mother, the result of a mistake at the hospital. Janis keeps this truth hidden from Ana, certainly when the latter makes advances and the two become lovers. Just as this seems to move towards a happily-ever-after that would give Cecilia two mothers who both love her, Arturo’s story is woven back into Janis’ life. He bears good news this time: he has managed to get a permit to open up the mass grave. His reappearance digs up a lot of truths that throw Janis’ love life in disarray, but will finally put her family history to rest.
Almodóvar’s intentions are pretty clear here: the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. The link he wants to create between the melodrama surrounding these two mothers and the history of the 100,000 people that disappeared during the Spanish Civil War is clear, but he never manages to weave these two narrative strands organically, and the socio-political angle feels shoehorned in. The problem this creates is that Janis’ life has to involve a very complicated love triangle in which she is swung back and forth between Ana and Arturo; a triangle that, almost out of the blue, ends in a satisfactory state for all involved, and that surprisingly for a queer director has Janis fall back on a heterosexual relationship by the end of the film, giving it a regressive feel. Similarly, the director tries to create conflict by making Ana come from a rich background, which supposedly figuratively places her forefathers on the opposite end of the barrel of the gun that killed Janis’ great-grandfather. Teresa’s profession as a stage actress even seems to be nothing more than an opportunity to underline the obvious with a cheap joke, as she confides in Janis that “all actors are left-wing“, implying that she is not, linking her to Spain’s fascist right in the previous century. Almodóvar never really follows up this angle though, which raises the question why Teresa’s character was given this much exposure. She is set up as an example of a woman with no motherly instincts who selfishly chooses her career over her daughter when the latter is at the most difficult point of her life so far. For a director who has put both mothers and actresses on a pedestal throughout his career, this position is a surprising and somewhat disappointing departure.
Madres paralelas‘ screenplay leaves too much to chance and too little to the imagination. Characters come and go when they are needed to further (and further complicate) Janis’ arc, and as a byproduct the film becomes predictable. In a film that is a cascade of twists designed to create narrative tension no matter their improbability, the only unexpected one is the romance between the two women at the heart of it. Yet this is the one development that in the end is left by the wayside, and Almodóvar himself does not seem to know what to do with it, turning Janis and Ana into a quasi-cliché married couple where Ana has the role of the nagging wife, and the only passionate love scene they share is almost Hollywood-esque in its demure and sexless execution, certainly compared to an earlier scene in which Cecilia is conceived.
Yet it is also the two actresses at the heart of the film that elevate Madres paralelas to a higher level. Cruz gives a magnificently emotional performance, in particular towards the end, when the burden of hiding the truth becomes too much for Janis to bear. But the chemistry she shares with virtual newcomer Smit (in only her second feature role) is what really makes their scenes together spark, even if that same spark is not on display in their love affair. The scene in which Ana has to tell Janis what happened to Anita hits hard. The two actresses make us feel not only their respective personal grief in that moment, but also the connection between the two women that is conveyed without words. Smit as the vulnerable, innocent but insecure Ana impresses with her character’s more internalized sadness and the way she bounces off Cruz’s performance. The production design is as always impeccable (a drab-looking Almodóvar film would be a true disappointment), and Almodóvar obviously still is a master at framing a shot, but after the triumph that was Pain and Glory, Madres paralelas is unfortunately a lesser, though by no means bad entry in his oeuvre, because he wants to tell two stories at once but can’t really mold them into a cohesive whole despite shared thematic connections. It is important to know our history and where we came from, but Madres paralelas never seems quite clear where it wants to go.