'Parallel Mothers': Pedro Almodóvar's Latest Is Bold, Messy, Ridiculous & Brilliant [Venice Review]

Some opening films merely open their festivals; Pedro Almodóvar’sParallel Mothers” bursts the Venice Film Festival wide like a piñata that’s been crammed with storylines as contrived as its feelings are genuine, so that melodrama rains down in ribbons from the screen, and conflicting emotions scatter like so much color-blocked confetti. And for this, a thousand times, bless him: in a world turned careful and considered (not by choice but by necessity) this extravagant, exuberant, magnificently messy movie, punch-drunk on story and delirious with drama, is the antidote to a cinematic lethargy you may not even have known you were feeling, until one of its legitimately insane plot pirouettes forcibly reminds you just how much dimension and chaos and vitality a flat beam of light projected onto a wall can contain. We have all had to learn caution of late; Almodóvar, after the comparative restraint of “Pain and Glory” and “Julieta” now comes with colors blazing, to help us relearn the lost art of being bold. 

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The title is a lie: parallel lines never converge, but the mothers in question are nothing but convergence, intersecting and colliding in ways that more often have them perpendicular to one another or woven together like DNA or, in one of the movie’s less successful gambits, one directly on top of the other. Janis (Penélope Cruz), a photographer in her late 30s, meets teenaged Ana (Milena Smit) when they are both pregnant and sharing a room in a maternity ward. Janis is excited about her pregnancy, and about single motherhood which is something of a family tradition; Ana is scared and aware that her own mother Teresa (Aitana Sánchez Gijón), an elegant actress pursuing her late-arriving big break, is probably not going to be a lot of help in the childrearing department. So it proves, and after about four hundred other revelations land, any one of which would have me arrested by the spoiler police so you’ll just have to take my word for it that they’re there, the new mothers end up growing closer and living together, despite sharing a connection that only one of them knows about. 

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Motherhood; Rossy de Palma; the joys and sufferings of women (exclusively so: Janis’ “We Should All be Feminists” T-shirt is entirely redundant – considering how sidelined they are, “Men are people too” would be the more provocative slogan in this context); the chopping of vegetables; luxuriant costuming; Penelope Cruz delivering the outstandingly vivid kind of performance that only Almodóvar has ever gotten out of her and that only she has ever given Almodóvar – none of these elements is new news in the director’s canon. What is new is the entirely unexpected sidebar about the legacy of the Spanish Civil War, a subject the filmmaker has never tackled before – at least not overtly, and Almodóvar only ever does things overtly. 

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It’s almost a fake-out: the film opens with Janis taking pictures of forensic anthropologist Arturo (Israel Elejalde) for a magazine profile before asking him, in long, breathlessly wordy sentences about the possibility of excavating the mass grave where her grandfather’s body has lain since he was executed by the Falangists in the early days of the war. Arturo wants to help but outlines the practical difficulties in enough detail that the worry descends that “Parallel Mothers” is about to be a very somber, procedural drama about the lack of resources provided by the state for peace and reconciliation projects. But then, thankfully, Arturo and Janis sleep together (a gorgeous, if brief scene that is depressingly remarkable for showing the female participant actually looking happy during sex), and suddenly she is pregnant, and suddenly she is in labor, and so is Ana, and so the deranged mainstage plot can kick into soap-operatically high gear. 

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Is it tasteful, one might ask, to have such serious-minded, politicized bookends surrounding a shameless telenovela storyline? Probably not, but as so often, Almodóvar’s approach is so passionately sincere and so thrummingly alive inside itself that taste doesn’t really figure into the equation. And the collision between the strands throws off a fascinating energy of its own, creating strange little, well, parallels that suggest our day to day lives are littered with the archaeology of the future; Janis’ blocky Prada shoes, her camera’s snapping shutter and the mobile that dangles over her little daughter’s crib are somehow analogous to the clogs, the glass eye and the rattle that the descendants of the grave’s victims use to identify their dead. 

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And, also as ever, the exceptional Almodóvarian craft colludes in smoothing the rough edges of those jagged abuttals. There’s the sensual tactility of Jose Luis Alcaine’s expert deep-focus photography, that somehow manages to make a beautiful image out of a hand clicking a computer mouse or a phone number written on a napkin.  There are the swirling strings of Alberto Iglesias‘ score that have enough intrigue and atmosphere to make the black-and-white image on a baby monitor feel like Hitchcock. And there’s Teresa Font’s editing, which makes abrupt changes of pace, mood, and location feel as pleasurably smooth as velvet, and which might be this superbly made film’s stealth craft superstar. 

It is hard to force an easy ideological shape onto “Parallel Mothers”, which is so deeply invested in cheek swabs and skeleton bones and identifying the features of the parents in the child that it could almost be a tract in favor of biological essentialism, were it not for the warmth and vibrant, earthy love with which Almodóvar also portrays those relationships that exist outside blood ties. But if it is about the past thrusting itself into the present and beyond, about a daughter in a crib and a grandfather in a grave, it is also, mostly, about the amazing woman who binds them across generations and bloodlines. In Cruz’s riveting, impossibly empathetic performance that makes deeply moving work of even the story’s most lurid and ludicrous contortions, there is an essential grace that feels timelessly feminine in a way only Almodóvar has ever really imagined for us. How strange then, that this ebullient, untidy, extraordinarily life-filled movie should end at a graveside. And how right that, looking down in sorrow and catharsis at the bones of their long-departed menfolk, it is all women. [A-]

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