Parallel Mothers [Madres paralelas]

Pedro Almodóvar
Release Year:
Length (mins):
Spain, France
Pedro Almodóvar
Penélope Cruz, Milena Smit
Screening Date:
  • 16 May 2023
  • Categories:

    A story of two mothers who bond in unexpected ways after giving birth on the same day. Touches of Almodovar's characteristic wry humour. Stars Penelope Cruz.

    What's this?
    F-Rated Bronze

    Film Notes

    Penélope Cruz in Pedro Almodóvar’s ‘Parallel Mothers’ (‘Madres Paralelas’): Film Review | Venice 2021.

    The paths of two women cross in a maternity ward and remain intertwined, as traumas of past and present are unearthed in the Spanish auteur’s sumptuous melodrama.

    After presenting a gift to Antonio Banderas with his transcendent role in Pain and Glory, Pedro Almodóvar reaffirms his status as the most munificent of directors with a part of corresponding complexity for another faithful member of his recurring acting stable, Penélope Cruz. As its title suggests, Parallel Mothers is an examination of the maternal instinct, a theme central to so much of the great Spanish director’s filmography. Likewise, the complicated comforts of relationships between women, the legacies of a hidden past, and the importance of the pueblo as a repository for those memories.

    Opening the main competition of the 78th Venice Film Festival on a high note, this is a ravishingly crafted work that again illustrates with ineffable beauty that no one uses the expressive power of color and design quite like Almodóvar. The same goes for music, with a Hitchcockian score by regular collaborator Alberto Iglesias that’s lush and enveloping even by the composer’s distinguished standards.

    While Parallel Mothers doesn’t match the intricately interwoven layers of Almodóvar’s top-tier work — All About My MotherTalk to HerPain and Glory — and some of its key plot disclosures can be seen coming, that doesn’t make the melodrama any less gripping or emotionally satisfying. Above all, it gives the marvelous Cruz one of the best roles of her career — a woman whose fulfillment is shattered by a startling truth that steers her toward deception, until she can no longer contain it. The actress responds with her most outstanding work since Volver.

    Cruz plays Janis, a successful commercial photographer named for Janis Joplin by her hippie mother, who died young and left her to be raised by her grandmother. After a photo shoot with forensic anthropologist Arturo (Israel Elejalde), Janis enlists his help in securing permits and funding from a historical society to excavate a mass grave in her childhood village. According to her family, her great-grandfather was dumped there after being killed by fascists during the Spanish Civil War. Janis and her surviving relatives hope to have the body exhumed so they can give him a proper burial alongside his wife.

    Meanwhile, Janis begins a relationship with the married Arturo and falls pregnant, freeing him of all responsibility once she decides to go ahead and have the child, whom she names Cecilia, after her grandmother.

    In the maternity ward, Janis meets the teenage Ana (Milena Smit) and a fast friendship is formed over labor pains. Both are single mothers whose pregnancies were unplanned, and while Janis is filled with joy by the unexpected surprise of a daughter at this relatively advanced point in her life, Ana, for reasons revealed only later, is overcome by depression. Ana’s actress mother, Teresa (Aitana Sánchez-Gijón), has promised to help raise her granddaughter, named Anita, while Janis’ steadfast rock is her agent and dear friend Elena (Rossy de Palma). Both are present for the births, filmed in intimate close-ups on the mothers’ faces, as agonizing miracles.

    When Teresa is cast as the lead in a Lorca drama, she takes off on a pre-Madrid regional tour, leaving Ana and the baby in the care of her housekeeper. In typically playful yet somber Almodóvarian fashion, an impassioned monologue from the play performed by Teresa during a rehearsal provides a meta reflection on the fate of discarded women in Spain.

    Janis and Ana remain in contact at first, but the photographer makes an alarming discovery that prompts her to cut herself off from almost everyone. She wrestles with a moral dilemma in the present as she continues to pursue the project to bring the secrets of the past to light in her native village. When a newly emancipated Ana — physically transformed, and untethered from both her mother and the father who rejected her — finds her way back into Janis’ life, the nature of their relationship changes dramatically, making it inevitable that the truth will surface.

    The limitless love Almodóvar has shown toward his female characters throughout his career is on abundant display here, eschewing judgment and finding forgiveness even for the selfishness and flaws that cause them shame. This is very much true of Sánchez-Gijón’s proudly self-possessed Teresa, who unburdens herself to Janis in a lovely confessional scene, admitting she never felt the vocation to be a wife or mother, her first love being the theater.

    The challenges and contradictions of being a woman bring soulful textures to scene after scene; even the potentially explosive revelation of sexual trauma is treated as one more crushing weight among many tests of a woman’s resilience.

    Newcomer Smit is a real find as Ana, her path to maturity paved by searing pain, misplaced self-castigation, and ultimately, by radiant compassion. Almodóvar presents the character’s guarded vulnerability in touching contrast to Janis’ more turbulent nature.

    Cruz holds nothing back, exposing the yearning and devastating hurt of a woman initially willing to bend her principles in order to protect her happiness. When Janis eventually comes clean at great personal cost, her honesty earns her redemption but also another unexpected gift of providence toward the end. In a less skilled filmmaker’s hands, that might have seemed too tidy. But Almodóvar’s generous spirit has always elevated his take on the human condition, and this is no exception.

    Among the supporting cast, it’s gratifying to see the divine de Palma — who returned after a long break to working with Almodóvar in 2016’s Julieta — embrace the role of the supportive older woman with such style, warmth and natural humor. And veteran Julieta Serrano, never more memorable than as the wronged housewife in Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, has a touching single scene as the last surviving direct link to the sorrow that has haunted Janis’ family for generations.

    Ana at first seems too young to grasp that history, which is destined to reassert itself. But her presence — along with that of Arturo — as part of an extended family adds considerably to the payoff of a delicately affecting conclusion that ties the drama together with deep feeling.

    As always, the craft contributions are impeccable. DP José Luis Alcaine’s crystalline camerawork becomes slower and more measured in the solemn final moments, just as Iglesias’ orchestral score shifts into discordant piano. Teresa Font’s supple editing is graced by elegant fades to black closing several poignant scenes.

    Of particular note is Antxón Gómez’s production design — full of luscious decor porn in the stylish interiors of Janis’ apartment, its terrace lemon tree suggesting an unbroken connection between city and country life; and the rustic childhood home to which she returns, its tiled kitchen walls a work of art. In the singular aesthetic vision of Almodóvar, even the normally sterile, institutional environment of a hospital maternity ward is alive with bold color, its greens and yellows more likely to be found in an ice cream parlor.

    It’s a testament to the consummate gifts of one of the world’s most treasured filmmakers — now entering the fifth decade of a career still going strong — that he can constantly delight your eye with no risk of losing your involvement in the emotional lives of characters he so clearly adores.

    Parallel Mothers review – Almodóvar delivers Venice film festival a little bundle of joy.

    Pedro Almodóvar and Penélope Cruz open the festival with a boisterous, warm-bodied swapped-at-birth melodrama about two single women who meet in a maternity ward.

    The first day of the Venice film festival is an excitable, expectant affair. The staff wear medical masks, the cinemas have been sanitised and the guests mass at the door like anxious family members outside a maternity ward. Happily they are in good hands; Pedro Almodóvar is the midwife. He delivers an opening night picture that is positively ringing with life.

    Showcasing a sure-footed performance from Penélope Cruz, Parallel Mothers shapes up as a boisterous swapped-at-birth melodrama, full of mix-ups and moral quandaries, occasionally tilting towards farce. But first appearances are deceptive and the film belies its high-concept conceit. All newborns, we’re told, carry the ghosts of the past in their genes – and so it is with Almodóvar’s latest, which is knotted and subversive; an autopsy of dark Spanish history dressed up as a bright baby shower. It’s a turbulent movie. The ingredients don’t always gel. But it is so generous of spirit that it would be churlish to complain. Most directors give so little. Almodóvar, by contrast, offers an over-abundance of riches.

    Cruz stars as Janis, a 40-year-old photographer who is determined she will raise her daughter as a single mum, just as her mother and grandmother did before her. In the maternity ward she meets teenager Ana (Milena Smit), who is similarly intent on going it alone. The women become close; they are both in the same boat. Months later, a biological test will establish just how linked these two are.

    Almodóvar tackles the plot’s twists and turns with his customary energy and abandon, rustling up a robust, warm-bodied celebration of female solidarity and the makeshift families that serve as life rafts to those who feel adrift. The mothers love each other and are raising their children as best as they can. The trouble is that Janis knows the truth and Ana does not, and it is this deceit and its repercussions that steer the film towards its stranger, darker second act.

    Janis’s married lover, it transpires, is a forensic archaeologist and part of a foundation responsible for exhuming the remains of those killed during the Spanish civil war. She wants his help to reclaim her great-grandfather’s body, supposedly buried in a mass grave outside his old village. Towards the end, the aged locals – mostly women – gather in the meadow for their first sight of old bones. It’s a fresh birth of sorts and in its way just as precious.

    Let nobody fault Almodóvar’s ambition here. If this finally lacks the polished sweep and completeness of Pain and Glory, his previous feature, it compensates with an air of fraught intimacy and throws out a wealth of ideas, leaving some tantalising loose ends to be picked up and examined. Confined for much of its run to a small quarter of Madrid, Parallel Mothers nonetheless looks, Janus-like, to the past and the future and then dares to join the dots between them. It’s a film that’s bent by hardship and pierced by tragedy but it finally bows out with a message of hope. Almodóvar’s implication is plain. It is only by confronting the crimes of the past (whether recent or historic) that Spain’s faltering modern-day citizens can set things straight and move on.

    Xan Brooks, The Guardian, September 1 2021.

    What you thought about Parallel Mothers [Madres paralelas]

    Film Responses

    Excellent Good Average Poor Very Poor
    49 (75%) 15 (23%) 1 (2%) 0 (0%) 0 (0%)
    Total Number of Responses: 65
    Film Score (0-5): 4.74

    Collated Response Comments

    81 members attended the AGM and 117 members and guests were present for this screening.  We received a total of 65 responses which resulted in a Film Score of 4.74. A response rate of 56%.

    Many thanks to all for your support with your responses during the season.

    "The Phantom of the Open" led the pack from the start of the season with a score of 4.73 and was just pipped at the post with this final film.

    Your collected observations are below.

    "This film was just superb. I found every moment of it hugely enjoyable and wonder how this standard can be maintained for another season. It was very clever of the management team to select the two best films to open and close the season and I am eager to find out what has been selected for 23/24. Well done GFS".

    "Loved the film. Only query was the rather loose thread between the 2 stories (the mothers and the dead men). Penelope Cruz was great".

    "Just as well for the earlier movies that this was the last showing of the season as it is cinema of a different order. I'm not sure what the level of intended connection between the mothers thrown together with their various senses of loss and betrayal and the Spanish Civil War - that most depressingly vicious and fratricidal of conflicts - but it is clearly there. Spain still struggles to acknowledge the truth of what happened and the destructive nature of shame is reflected in all the women's stories. The message is that the truth is cleansing and necessary for progress. The finale is an astonishing emotional tsunami and an unlikely ending to what at first resembled an almost Shakesperian comedy/drama. It is to Almodovar's great credit that this works but he is supported by a superb cast and immaculate design and masterful cinematography (TBH he had me at the simple, witty title sequence). My only irritation is that the baby swap plot is obvious from the start and the revelation could have been moved to a little more quickly. The film is a small miracle of details particularly about lover/mother/parent/child issues for women that are cleverly explored. Brilliant. Best film of the season".

    "Simply masterful. One of the great auteurs still working today".

    "Superb film that keeps your attention throughout. Of the films I was able to see the season began and finished with the most enjoyable ones".

    "As with every Almodovar film it is immensely watching and absorbing. But I couldn't help feeling he somewhat overdid the female relationship and ventured into "old man gratuitous fantasy", excusing himself by adding in the serious issue of confronting the atrocities of the past".

    "Might have been more interesting had it been made by a woman? A bit heavy handed at times".

    "Great film choice as the last of the GFS season. Enjoyed the 2 stories linking Janis to her own child and that of her great grandparents. Missed quite a lot of the dialogue when the subtitles were against a light background".

    "A great end to the season. Wonderful performances from Penelope Cruz and "Ana" and story lines which you were never quite sure which way they would go. A very emotional ending. Thanks to the Committee and volunteers for all your hard work in making this another very successful season".

    "Really enjoyed the film, warped with so many emotions of family and lovers, entwined with the Spanish Civil War. Pedro Almodavor's encapsulated in the film Spanish interiors and landscapes with the talented actors, including Penelope Cruz gave authenticity to Almodavor being a highly skilled and knowledgeable Film Director".

    “Great film to finish the season. Wonderful acting and important message about history”.

    “Amazing film”. “Very moving…Penelope Cruz was exceptional”.

    “Beautifully acted & powerful story – liked the juxtaposition of the two narratives”.

    “One of the best”.

    “A very unexpected and interesting plot. Convincing acting and the children were great. I liked the way the families over the generations were all linked together”.

    “A great film to end the season”.

    “Superb – acting, direction and camera work. Real power in the personal and potential parallels. Outstanding in storyline and impact”.

    “Compassionate”. “Outstanding, powerful, shocking and good”.

    “Brilliant film, full of humanity and sensitivity to human frailty. Best film this year”.

    “Very good”.     “Wonderful film. Great story. Fantastic actors/actresses”.

    “Generational trauma wonderfully represented on the protagonist’s life journeys. Great acting. Thank you!!”.

    “Fascinating – two stories. Brilliant acting”.

    “The best of the season”.

    “Very powerful – excellent cast – I loved it”.

    “Superb directing, powerful story – Excellent”.

    “Excellent end to the season. The interplay between Janis and Ana was very well portrayed”.

    “Very moving – the best”.

    “A beautifully told story and superbly shot”.

    “I thoroughly enjoyed this film. Excellent direction with no wasted dialogue! He kept it tight which I like. Still many Q’s about the situation. Ancestry being one. It felt important but at the same time could be missing for Cecilia!!”

    “The best film all season. Fantastic”.

    “Wonderful film. Excellent storyline. Brilliant acting. Loved it”.    “Fabulous”.

    “Almodóvar is great”.    “Brilliant!!! That’s it”.

    “Fabulous”.     “Thank you…...great film”.   “Not what I expected but enjoyed it very much”.

    “More Almodóvar please”.    “Outstanding”.

    “Compelling and beautifully acted and directed. A few revelations – wouldn’t Janice have asked Ana about her baby’s father a lot sooner, for example? Sorry I can’t read the rest of this comment.

    “A lot of story threads in one film”. “A lot of issues squeezed into a long film”.

    “A tremendous sub story and one well worth telling. Did not enjoy the main story so much”.

    “As with many European films, started a little slowly but completely engrossing”.

    “Beautifully shot and acted but oddly staccato in terms of plot”.

    “3stories in one! Very good. Convincing acting. Plausible tales - apart from the baby swap, in parts”.

    “Very interesting and thought provoking – I need 2-3 days to really get it!



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