Review: Parallel Mothers

If there’s such a thing as an Almodóvarian logic, then it’s best exemplified by the sudden and more than serendipitous reappearance by Leonardo Sbaraglia’s character in Pain and Glory (2019), a former lover of Antonio Banderas’s protagonist, who happens to see a one-man play in which their story is reframed, but not enough for the monologue to disguise the material from the one who inspired it. It’s unlikely, yes; but likeliness is smoothed over in Almodóvar’s narrative design by the speed of the disclosure, which persuades the reluctant viewer that it could happen. That speed is a key aspect of Parallel Mothers, a politically astute melodrama in which photographer Janis (Penélope Cruz) and teenage Ana (Milena Smit) give birth at the same time as single mothers, lose touch, reunite, work for, support, and love each other. The precipitous reversals and gear changes of their story are given a frame by Janis’s on-again-off-again affair with Arturo (Israel Elejalde), an archaeologist who is the father of Cecilia, Janis’s baby. Janis approaches Arturo about a potential dig in her home village near Granada, to unearth the unmarked grave of her and her neighbours’ relatives, murdered during the civil war. It may seem like there’s nothing but a glancing relation between the film’s two strands, but the ending melds them into one, placing a queered family, a chosen one, in direct contact with the remains of ancestors. Before that, though, Almodóvar has tricks to perform: a flourish as Janis and Arturo fuck, the white curtain of his hotel room flapping wildly out of the open window; the intensity of the colour coordination throughout his frames; the Persona-like fades to black to demarcate the end of a movement, in fact the screen less fades to black than succumbs to it; an extreme close-up of Cruz’s finger pressing on a mouse; the incorporation of screens within screens, the digital textures of those screens enveloped by the camera’s ultra-digital sheen; the quality of the film’s medium close-ups, in which the actors lean into lens, all the better to catch the details of their performances. Impressed as I am by all of this, I can’t help but lament the absence of some of the more unrestrained qualities of Almodóvar’s earlier films, say Laws of Desire (1987) or Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown (1988): the films of this current period are designed to be equal parts graceful and garish, modern melodramas with hints of the telenovela, with an image or a gesture or a narrative decision that unsettles the balance just a modicum. But the director’s control of proceedings is matched by the character of Janis, and Cruz’s performance—both attain a poise and a dignity, especially because the relationship between director and actor is marked by mutual adoration. Final word to Anna Shechtman and D.A. Miller, who have the perfect formulation for their work together: ‘Almodóvar’s dream of “women without men” is fundamentally a dream of women without any man but him.’  

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