Pedro Almodóvar is a master stylist and storyteller. As a longtime fan I am glad he is so prolific, because if one of his films doesn’t meet my (high) expectations I console myself with the knowledge that there is another one in the works.
In less skillful hands, the ingredients of Parallel Mothers might result in a soap opera that would invite quibbles over credibility. But Almodóvar’s characters have inner lives; we empathize with them and that makes them real.
Penélope Cruz plays a successful photographer who gives birth to a child without committing to a longterm relationship with the father. She befriends a younger woman who shares her hospital room immediately following the birth, and the two promise to stay in touch. Cruz cannot know that her baby’s father will disavow their child or that her life will become permanently entwined with her newfound female friend. (I am being careful not to reveal too much of the plot.)
The women undergo an emotional experience that I must admit I found all too tangible as the grandfather of a newborn. All babies are cute, I suspect, but some bond with their mothers more readily than others.
Cruz is fortunate to have Almodóvar crafting such diverse and compelling roles for her to play, and this is no exception. A plot thread that serves as counterpoint to the main story impels her to give voice to an unresolved issue that hangs over the country of Spain like a cloud—the unmarked graves of resistance fighters from decades past. This could weigh on the film if handled wrong, but Almodóvar weaves it into the fabric of his screenplay so it doesn’t seem like an appendage or contrivance.
As beautiful and unselfconscious as ever, Cruz is completely believable as a working woman who merges motherhood into her life—and why not? She is that woman. Relative newcomer Milena Smit fares well as the young mother who finds herself part of Cruz’s circle. Almodóvar regular Rossy de Palma and Aitana Sánchez-Gijón also register well in the ensemble, with Israel Elejalde a convincing boyfriend for Cruz.
Cruz’s apartment is filled with startlingly beautiful artwork and décor, and the closing credits read like a who’s who in the world of design. Recent Almodóvar films have had a valedictory tone, but this one breaks that cycle, a happy indication that his imagination is still fertile. May he and his acting muse continue to enchant us for many years to come.