In genre terms, “Parallel Mothers” (a lackluster, if accurate, title) is in the unashamedly emotive Douglas Sirk tradition. That’s an unusual vehicle for examining the burden of national history, but it’s in no way foreign to Almodóvar. In his hands, an age-old, even clichéd, woman’s-picture chestnut — the simultaneous peril, burden, and exaltation of motherhood — becomes something deeper, richer, and notably moving.
Janis and Ana, both single mothers, share a hospital room as they give birth. Three highly melodramatic developments ensue. Two of them Sirk would recognize and could easily imagine Jane Wyman or Lana Turner enduring (nobly, of course). The third would flabbergast him — Wyman, too, though maybe not Turner. Almodóvar handles them with aplomb, as do Cruz and Smit.
Janis is a successful photographer. The movie opens with her photographing a well-known forensic anthropologist, Arturo (Israel Elejalde). That must sound like a contradiction in terms: How can a forensic anthropologist be well known? It’s because Arturo excavates the graves of those murdered during the Spanish Civil War.
Janis asks if they might speak after the photo session, to ask a favor. Would Arturo be willing to excavate the grave of her great-grandfather, who was executed by the Fascists? He agrees, though there has to be a long wait. He is already committed to investigating so many other cases. In Spain, the past, even when literally buried, is truly not past.
When Janis becomes pregnant, she’s surprised — but also happy. She has the financial means to deal with single motherhood. She already has a housekeeper and can hire an au pair. Plus, there’s her good friend, Elena (Almodóvar standby Rossy de Palma). Ana, a good 20 years younger, struggles with very different circumstances. She needs to move in with her mother.
Almost as old as Ana’s mother, Janis confides to Ana that she was named after Janis Joplin. “Who’s Janis Joplin?” Ana replies. But maternity has made them peers. “As we’re in the same situation,” Janis says, “we can talk about things.” Events, none of them expected, draw them much closer together.
Ana is a challenging role: bewildered and vulnerable but also determined. Smit does it justice. With another costar, she might steal the movie. That’s not going to happen sharing the screen with this particular costar. Cruz is a marvel: forceful, passionate, casually sexy. There are lots of people who star in movies. There are very few honest-to-Hollywood movie stars. Cruz is one of them.
This is her seventh movie with Almodóvar, so her presence is as unsurprising as it is welcome. Yet in terms of the movie itself Cruz’s casting is a surprise. The heroine of a woman’s picture is almost always a victim, a practitioner of redemption through suffering. Janis is no victim, and Cruz’s performance makes that very plain. In revisiting the genre, Almodóvar, with Cruz’s help, is also subverting it.
Much happens before Arturo can act on his promise. His doing so provides the movie with a deeply satisfying conclusion. It’s a kind of coda, in which what we’ve previously seen about the relations between parents and children, the bonds between generations, deepen and extend.
More than a century and a half after the end of our own civil war, Americans are still grappling with its legacy. Imagine how much harder that would be if the conflict were half as distant in time (the Spanish Civil War ended in 1939), with a third as many casualties (as a percentage of population) — and the South had won and ruled the rest of the country for 40 years.
With very effective understatement — and understatement does not come naturally to him — Almodóvar makes us feel that immense burden even as we see its pressure lift just a little bit. Presumably this was in no way his intention, but part of what makes “Parallel Mothers” so striking is that it’s about parallel nations, too.
Written and directed by Pedro Almodóvar. Starring Penélope Cruz, Milena Smit, Israel Elejalde, Rossy de Palma. At Coolidge Corner, Kendall Square. 123 minutes. R (some sexuality). In Spanish, with subtitles.
Mark Feeney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.