' ' Cinema Romantico: Parallel Mothers

Tuesday, April 12, 2022

Parallel Mothers

In a Pedro Almodóvar movie, everything is in its place. The maternity ward of a hospital bearing the eponymous “Parallel Mothers” is painted green just as the mouse that will click through the results of a DNA test rests on red mousepad, the former nurturing, the latter portending how such seemingly straightforward parental roles will be scorched. The We Should All Be Feminists t-shirt, well, that speaks for itself. Even the ham resting in the background on a countertop, its leg conspicuously protruding out, no doubt represents something, maybe just an inside reference to Almodovar’s own “What Have I Done to Deserve This?” Indeed, that 1984 film was only Almodóvar’s fourth but already evocative of its exacting aesthetic, one juxtaposed against swirling melodrama and florid emotions. There are myriad narrative twists and turns in “Parallel Mothers” too, though the tone is more restrained, brought home in the performance of Penélope Cruz who gracefully renders what might seem larger-than-life as utterly true to it instead. 

Cruz is Janis Martinez, a fashion photographer shooting Arturo (Israel Elejalde), a forensic archaeologist, as the movie opens. Afterwards she expresses her desire for a mass grave where her great-grandfather and many other men were killed and unceremoniously buried during the Spanish Civil War. Arturo suggests he might be able to drum up enough national interest to excavate it. But first things first, the two have an affair, since forensic archaeologists can be sexy too, Janis gets pregnant, and before we know it, the movie has flashed ahead to Janis wandering the maternity ward alongside an expectant single teen mother, Ana (Milena Smit). At first this might seem like a mere evocation of how time gets away from us, one big idea giving way to an unexpected detour. But mass grave excavation is a seed that Almodóvar plants, rumbling beneath the movie’s two-hour garden, waiting to sprout, and then gradually dovetailing with Janis’s own unlikely journey of motherhood.

If the two new mothers initially drift apart after the births of their children, they reunite by chance. Ana has lost her daughter to a freak crib death and moved out of her mother’s home, underlined in her blond pixie cut, which at once makes her seem so young and so intent on not being young at all, dueling sensations that Smit plays straight to, brimming with confidence in one moment and insecurity the next. At Janis’s invitation, Ana becomes a live-in nanny to her daughter Cecilia. If there is baked-in privilege here, there is also the arduousness of single mothering, working a job all day, tending to your baby at night, the mental and physical toll of trying to do both, the brunt of which Cruz wears in her performance even as the love of her child shines through. The difficulty of that love becomes reflected in a different parallel mother, the estranged one of Ana, Teresa (Aitana Sánchez-Gijón), who neglected her daughter in pursing dreams of becoming an actress. Another movie might have rendered her a cartoon villain, but Almodóvar demonstrates empathy in a mid-movie monologue where Teresa weighs the professional costsacrifices of single mothering, professional cost. Cruz has Janis receive this with small, pained, knowing nods, like she can see just how easily this might have been her, summarizing the empathy that Almodóvar deliberately writes into the scene.

I should confess, the movie has a twist lingering in the air. But crucially, it is not one Almodóvar waits until the conclusion to spring, reshaping everything we have just seen. No, he places the revelation early, shaping so much of what is to be seen. It is a twist that calls into question Janis’s true motherly motivations, painting her as selfish as she is selfless in other moments, and in a sense putting her on equal footing with those who would bury Spanish’s fascist past, a key delineation as that subplot eventually loops back around and intertwines with Janis’s emotional crisis. Those bodies waiting to be exhumed are ghosts of Franco’s White Terror, but Janis becomes haunted by nothing less than a kind of ghost of herself, visually manifested in a shot post-revelation when we see Janis’s shadow on the wall as she approaches her daughter’s room. As for why she does what she does, “Parallel Mothers” suggests but never says, and neither does Cruz, where simply in the way she watches her child cradled by Ana across the table seems to imply happiness, sadness, and even a sense that she, herself, can’t quite be certain why she’s doing what she’s doing. Maybe it’s all of those. Maybe that’s life.

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