Parallel Mothers

****1/2

Reviewed by: Andrew Robertson

Parallel Mothers
"Milena Smit is a relative newcomer. This is only her second feature and she has real presence." | Photo: Sony Pictures Classics

It seems that there is no Almodóvar film title with which I will not quarrel, as the mothers here are not parallel. At least not within our frame of reference, not geometrically. Their courses intersect and loop, spawn tangents that reveal shapes long concealed. That from certain perspectives parallels might come together is at once and not a certainty.

The two mothers are Janis (Penelope Cruz) and Ana (Milena Smit). Janis is a photographer, Ana is much younger, not yet at the stage where she has anything approaching a career. Her own mother, Teresa (Aitana Sánchez-Gijón) is an actress, and the stage is her career. That's three already, but you can keep counting.

This is Cruz' eighth feature collaboration with Almodóvar and frankly if you liked the other seven one would imagine you'd like this. There's comedy, but less than others, tragedy, similarly, and there came a point where I wondered if the intent was to compress the sweep of scandal of a telenovela into an arthouse format. It isn't though, there's a legion of things that it is about, but somewhere in the very middle of it is the gap between choice and accident, the little bits that make history.

There's a commission for studying the graves of the Spanish Civil War, a pristine craft table at a photoshoot that's got some of variously lovingly displayed apple products, dyed hair, romance, infidelity, paranoia, lovingly constructed zooms and fadings to black and pixel by pixel the subject headings of a webmail client. Variety and the familiar abound, frequent Almodóvar collaborator Rossy De Palma appears as Elena, half-battleship, half-maiden aunt, half-editor, half-friend. Cruz retains all the crisp glamour that she deserves, the circularity of seeing her behind a camera shooting others as cover stars is one of the many delights. Sanchez-Gijon achieves that difficult thing of acting acting, where Nightmare Alley might literally wink within its pretend, there's a different weight to it. This is they hyper-real, gloss, reflective.

There is a plot, of course, but I don't intend to discuss it, not because it doesn't matter and not because of fear of spoilers but because it seems almost redundant to do so. The Artist was a silent movie but it had a script, it didn't start with 'things happen' and have 'END' on the next line. Parallel Mothers has enough going on that it should suffice to say that 'things happen' and then there is an ending, but a summary of it misses the detail, the depth, the effort of the digging.

Milena Smit is a relative newcomer. This is only her second feature and she has real presence. For reasons beyond haircut and poise I was minded of Kristen Stewart, a presence and a still intensity. I could rhapsodise further but it is quicker to tell you to see it, to watch out for her, to seek her out in future. If she becomes part of Almodóvar's troupe then we will be lucky indeed.

There are so many returnees from previous works that it feels almost redundant to mention José Luis Alcaine as this is their tenth work together. Though it isn't, his cinematography is one of the many delights here. There are so many moments of focus and intent that feel like a dish properly executed, the sizzle not just of showmanship but perfectly cooked.

It's set, at least initially, in 2016, which means that the predicament of the pandemic is avoided. There are swabs though, of dramatic import, but even beyond that the fact that it starts in the past adds to its sense of history. Throughout it invites its characters to reckon with history and it is perhaps in history that it is weakest.

Not factually, nor technically, but tonally. This is an Almodóvar film. Writes, directs, produces, multi-hyphenates. There are plenty of auteurs who have become adjectives and I suspect it is some proportion of syllables that saves that sense of style and stylistics from being a single word. As with The French Dispatch I do not think it will win any converts but I am also not sure that it needs to. Author and audience will often find each other, and though there are substitutions and additions I feel fans will be rewarded.

At a hair over two hours it's longer than many but there is so much going on that bears ample reward that it does not feel it. That there was a poster for it in 2009's Broken Embraces (when Smit wasn't yet a teenager!) is an indication of how far in advance Almodóvar prepares. Here it bears glorious fruit, refreshing like the bite of an apple on a hot day. It perhaps does not surprise in its nature. Varietals don't fall far from the tree, but it can delight in its quality. A gala, possessed of enough earthiness to make any lady pink, this is something golden, delicious.

Reviewed on: 27 Jan 2022
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Two women, a generation apart, find themselves inextricably linked by their brief time together in a maternity ward, bound by a secret with ties to a deep trauma in Spanish history.
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