“Parallel Mothers” is powerful and gut-wrenching

Penélope Cruz stars in “Parallel Mothers,” directed by Pedro Almodóvar.

Out gay filmmaker Pedro Almodóvar remains at the height of his powers with “Parallel Mothers,” opening January 14 at the Landmark Ritz 5. This rich, multilayered melodrama showcases a stunning performance by Penélope Cruz as Janis, a fashion photographer, who forms a connection with Ana (Milena Smit) when they are roommates in a maternity ward. 

Janis became pregnant by Arturo (Israel Elejalde), a forensic anthropologist she met at a photoshoot. She asked him if he could assist in the excavation of a mass grave in her hometown where her great-grandfather and others were executed and buried during the war. Ana is a teenager, whose divorced mother, Teresa (Aitana Sánchez-Gijón), an actress, has not quite come around to her adolescent daughter being a single mom. Janis, who is happy to be pregnant, and Ana, who is regretful, exchange numbers as they leave the ward, hoping their children will bond like they did. 

“Parallel Mothers” focuses on Janis raising her daughter Cecilia and enjoying motherhood — until Arturo pays a visit. He thinks the baby does not look like him, and Janis, horrified by his suggestion that their child isn’t his, kicks him out. A nice time-jump flashback details how Janis made the decision to end her affair with Arturo (he’s married) and raise her child on her own. But Janis is nagged by Arturo’s doubts, and it leads her to discover something that causes her to rethink what she knows. And of course, as Janis is adjusting to this curveball, Ana re-enters her life and drops a bombshell. 

Almodóvar makes all this drama absorbing, but it is just the set up for where the film goes. Janis asks Ana to move in with her and help her care for her baby, Cecilia, so Janis can work. Ana is on her own — Teresa is on tour with her theater company — so the arrangement suits her as well. As the women get closer, they eventually fall into a romantic relationship. 

“Parallel Mothers” is all about the bonds between parents and children, as well as family traditions and non-traditional families. How Almodóvar dissects and connects these layers is what makes the film so fascinating. Janis recounts her family history and urges Ana to know what her relatives did during the war. Janis shows a picture of herself as a baby, being held by her own wild mother, as well as members of her extended family. There is a fantastic exchange between Janis and Teresa, who arrives one day, looking for Ana, and recounts her relationship with Ana’s father. And then there is a heartbreaking conversation between Janis and Ana, where the latter confesses details about the father of her child, Anita. 

As these narratives crisscross and overlap, the characters all reveal lies they have told themselves and others as ways of coping with painful truths and sins of omission. The sexual relationship between Janis and Ana can be read as one of love and protection, but also surrogacy as each seeks the other as an alternative co-parent for their child. The women do not discuss their relationship — they almost don’t need to — until they reach a juncture where they must confront reality. 

Almodóvar shrewdly includes the parallel story of the disinterment of the grave which forms the film’s powerful final act. Arturo and Janis seek out stories and histories of the men from her hometown and the legacy and pain they left behind. The film is, oddly, about the absent fathers who have cast a pall on the women whose strength and resilience are what “Parallel Mothers” is honoring. Janis is a formidable character, and even when she makes bad or selfish decisions she is not acting recklessly, but the reverse; she is trying to protect people, like Ana, from harm. The devastation Janis feels at various times during the film is gut-wrenching. 

As Janis, Penélope Cruz delivers a sensational performance. She has some haunting expressions during her difficult, dramatic moments, but she is vivacious when she is photographing a trans model (Daniela Santiago) for a magazine cover — encouraging and appreciating the joy of the model’s womanhood. Her “maternal” instincts are on full display here, and how she cares for her daughter, Ana, as well as the women from her hometown reveal her caring nature. Even if Janis makes some poor choices, or difficult decisions, they come from a place of love.

As Ana, Milena Smit is compelling playing a directionless teen mom whose life is unexpectedly and forever changed by knowing Janis. Smit deftly shows Ana’s fragility developing into a steeliness as she comes into her own as a young woman, mirroring Janis’ loving nature, and adapting to the demands of motherhood. 

 In smaller roles, Aitana Sánchez-Gijón makes a strong impression as Teresa, and Almodóvar regulars Rossy de Palma and Julieta Serrano have warm, supporting roles. 

“Parallel Mothers” is about how generational bloodlines have lasting impact. Almodóvar emphasizes that by mining the key, and often underappreciated roles women play in family, history, and healing.

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