Pedro Almodóvar is in a new phase of storytelling, a far more pensive and thoughtful phase all the while speckled with his characteristic melodrama that has become a staple of his career. With the semi-autobiographical Pain & Glory in 2019, we found a film filled to the brim with his usual themes and tropes and yet handled in a pensive, tentative and thoughtful way that I suppose perfectly reflected his anxieties and successes all the while through the lens of the fragility of age. What I’m really trying to say, is that it was powerful, vulnerable work from a master. It was a conglomerate of his entire career.
So how can he top it? He kind of didn’t. Well, not for me anyway.
Almodóvar has not lost anything in the process of his lifelong career, let’s get that clear. Each phase he enters is merged within the entire span of his of his work and therefore can be seen both individually and as a whole as new window into his psyche; a critical eye on himself and the ever-changing Spain he has seen evolve through Franco’s rule to present day. His latest work is no different in this regard. He's conventionally unconventional. However Parallel Mothers does have its shortcomings. Framing a drama of motherhood, romance and betrayal within the confines of harrowing Spanish history is not an unusual device from a filmmaker such as he. In fact, it works pretty well in occasionally. But it is also this thing that hinders it in some way.
A Photographer, Janis (Penelope Cruz) works with a forensic Archaeologist Artruro (Israel Elejalde) for a shoot and asks for his help to excavate a mass grave in her home village, the incident claiming the lives of her Great-grandfather and other men who were murdered during the Spanish Civil War. The event has haunted the people who wish to lay their families to rest. He agrees to review the case with his foundation yet, they simply cannot let their relationship end there as a passionate affair commences. Months later, they have amicably split after it is revealed that Janis is pregnant and Artruro must tend to his wife who is battling cancer and none the wiser to the affair. Janis chooses to the raise the child she has conceived alone. In the final stages of pregnancy, she shares a hospital room with a teen mother Ana (Milena Smit), accompanied only by her mother. The two bond and over time, and following the birth of their daughters, their lives intertwine unexpectedly.
And that’s just the start of it. To divulge much more will rob you of some of the surprises that are in store. Still, even with little knowledge of the film before going in, I wanted a bit more. It’s stuffed with a signature traits; popping colours, temperamental actresses, high fashion, artistes, even Rossy de Palma. Yet, Parallel Mothers felt less than what it could be. It needed just a little bit at the final hurdle… just a tad. Maybe his take was mature, that choosing to revel in as much of the dramatics as he may have done in the past means that he focused on the aspects that mattered most. This, after all, is a story about overcoming the past to lay way for a better future. It’s the historical aspects of the story that carry the most weight however. The narratives in which we follow the Janis and Ana’s lives, in contrast, become convoluted.
Despite younger and older, a clash of experience and inexperience, a confusion of roles within their relationship, catalysts for much tension later on with the past and the future constantly at odds throughout, many of the differences between Ana and Janis became kind of unrelatable to the audience. Almodóvar is no stranger to outlandish characters, extreme scenarios and extraordinary coincidences. It’s all a part of the charm; so it might be that in this current climate I just didn’t gel with their situations. A successful photographer and a young woman from a well-off family, the abundances of nanny’s and carers form a reality that is a million miles away from the upbringing I had. The story sat too awkwardly for my liking. I’m just too poor to sympathize on that front, most likely. These situations change in varying degrees as the story unfolds, but ultimately for the first time in an Almodóvar feature I felt distant from the characters.
When Almodóvar goes beyond those elements it uncovers his strong voice; one filled with pride and passion. As I have mentioned before, the sinews of the Mass-grave narrative are what gives this story a backbone, allows it to stand out amongst his oeuvre. There are other elements, new territories that Almodóvar surprised me with but they were like splatters on a canvas. There is something to be found in Almodóvar’s exploration of the beauty of the collective raising of a child, the breaking of conventional norms that empowers mothers and feels significant in the common zeitgeist. In this, his stance of the renewal of life, the paths to make a person a person is striking. If his powerful classic All About my mother (1999) was an ode to mothers, then this is to motherhood in all its forms, a throwback to the old saying that it takes a village to raise a child.
Of course I loved the apartments; I always do with their abstract, delicious colour schemes and spaces. Without fail, I get delusions of grandeur. The merging of the Metropolitan and the rustic settings are always a bonus for me; Almodóvar’s roots are in a rural town in Castil-La Mancha Province and he clearly adores those places and the communities he grew up in. Cruz is also phenomenal, as always. Under Almodóvar, her greatest performances bloom. Her Janis was sweet but strong, fiery but flawed; all you could ever want from a protagonist. There was plenty to like in this feature. But in the end, I never felt like it all came together.
It’s like Talk to Her without a coma, or Tie Me Up, Tie Me Down! without the kidnapping… its Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown without the gazpacho. It’s missed some steps in the waltz and leaves me craving the moments that really push it, that make the audience go ‘oooh’. I love Almodóvar’s work; he is one of the finest living filmmakers. From another director, perhaps I would be less forgiving or maybe I am being unforgiving because it is Almodóvar. I’ve seen everything from him before and know how he can set the stage; my expectations were high. In the end, it didn’t work its magic like usual. However, one thing I can vouch for is that whenever I enter Almodóvar’s worlds, I hate to leave.
As per Usual I am late to the gravy train… of which I helped myself, got mad distracted with gluttony and then struggled to catch up to everyone else so blobbity was I of nourishment. I will be trying to do more, a few cinema trips a have gone by and I have a few thoughts on those. Bear with me!