There’s something to be said about “movie magic” or whatever word or phrase you use to describe those “Nicole Kidman sitting in the world’s cleanest, emptiest AMC” moments where you really just appreciate every aspect that not only went into a film’s production, but the time and intention that sitting down and watching it puts into it as well. For some people, it could be Spider-Man: No Way Home, for others, it’s Mulholland Dr., or something even more niche. Maybe they aren’t perfect films, maybe they aren’t your favorites from a subjective standpoint, but at one moment during it, you felt that…thing, that thing that reminds you why you like movies, and why taking the time for them is still a fulfilling prospect during our frantic lives. That is what the films of Pedro Almodóvar give me, even when they aren’t all as show-stopping as Talk to Her or Pain and Glory, they never fail to light that spark within my soul watching whatever beautifully staged drama he has unfold on screen. Almodóvar’s latest artistic endeavor Parallel Mothers (Madres paralelas), is no different in how commandingly he glues my eyes to the screen in an almost childlike wonder.
Janis (Penélope Cruz) is a successful photographer living on her own in Madrid, working with local anthropologist Arturo (Israel Elejalde) to excavate a mass grave in her hometown with the remains of local family members killed during the Spanish Civil War. Janis and Arturo’s relationship escalates to passion, despite Arturo’s marriage, and soon Janis finds herself pregnant. When Janis finds herself without Arturo’s support, she begins to bond with her hospital roommate, Ana (Milena Smit), a young single mother who delivers her daughter at the same time as Janis. As they navigate the struggles of single motherhood, they use their bond to support one another during forthcoming tragedy and hardship.
Being an Almodóvar film, there’s obviously much more than a surface-level synopsis can provide. Most of Almodóvar’s films take seemingly conventional plotlines and explore them in such tender, unique, often very funny ways, that they never cease to absolutely delight me. There’s always a moment of “I don’t know, man…this one doesn’t sound that interesting” that I always, rapidly get turned around on because I forget the way in which his films are constructed around such basic ideas. The end result is not basic in the slightest.
There’s always an element of fantasy at play even in Almodóvar’s most grounded films, one that utilizes beautifully intricate mise-en-scène that forms an almost dreamlike reverie over the whole film. There is no fantasy universe I would want to be a part of more than Almodóvar’s Madrid, with its stunning color blocking, tender introspective characters, and homes & kitchens that make Nancy Meyers sets look pedestrian in comparison, there’s an entire world built out of a story that doesn’t necessarily “need” it built, but always benefits wonderfully from Almodóvar’s touch.
Cruz is genuinely transcendent in the lead role, and does so much with an already layered character that only compliments the excellent work done on the page. Despite such an animated, almost stylized world in which she inhabits, there is nary a moment where Cruz doesn’t feel entirely, tragically authentic. Particularly coming from Cruz’s place in the American film industry as a buxom, exotic badass (I’m looking at you, The 355), being reminded of Cruz’s immense dramatic heft from films in her native Spain is always lovely. Sure, she can be a sexy badass when she wants, but the freedom to be any of these characters in such a successful manner is what has always made Cruz special amongst her peers.
I suppose if Parallel Mothers has anything that doesn’t put it on the grandiose level of Almodóvar’s best, it’s that it’s all a bit slight in the grand scheme of things. It doesn’t necessarily break new ground as much as it polishes and improves upon previously broken ground, and that’s okay. There’s no reason that Parallel Mothers needs to reinvent the wheel. The wheel is fine
Almodóvar’s films are increasingly starting to feel more like adult playgrounds to me more than anything else. Amongst the melodrama, and the tragedy, and the humanity, I find myself simply having a wonderful time indulging in the beauty that comes from his work. Whether grand or small, there’s a unique, lively beauty that’s unmistakable. While Parallel Mothers errs on the smaller side of things, there’s always a tender humanity from these characters that brings it all home. After all, it’s got that “thing.”
In select theaters beginning December 24th, 2021.
For more information, head to the official Sony Pictures Classics Parallel Mothers website.
Final Score: 4 out of 5.