It is interesting that a filmmaker who used to make such obviously transgressive and counter-cultural work now delivers a kind of comfort cinema. This is not to say that Parallel Mothers is without challenging edges, it is certainly equipped with an interesting political backdrop and includes elements that would be very risqué outside of an Almodovar movie. It is just that the film, very neatly, fits into this later period of Almodovar works (where Pain and Glory (2019) still stands as the high point) that feel uniformly prestige and skilful. Now, the artistic trashiness of his early works has been thoroughly replaced by a sense of class and sensibility.
This is, of course, its own kind of thrill, and Parallel Mothers is a thrilling Almodovar melodrama, the kind of film only he makes. With this comes the familiarity and the safeness, the sense of comfort. Even the surprising plotting, full of reveals and subversions, feels like remnants of a formula: another twisting Almodovar melodrama about motherhood set in Madrid in which past and present are in conversation. Almodovar is very good at these films, and Parallel Mothers is a very good one of these films. It is, however, definitively one of these films, and lacks the transcendent meta qualities of Pain and Glory or the impressionistic theatricality of the (frankly underappreciated) Julieta (2016). If you are looking for a more classical Almodovarian melodrama, the most recent example being his modern masterpiece Volver (2006), this may come across as a return to form. But, that being the case, it still lacks that film’s formal cleverness and more transcendent qualities.
The plotting in Parallel Mothers is classic Almodovar: a female fronted melodrama full of twists and reveals. We start with a seemingly simple premise about a single mother (Penelope Cruz’s Janis), one that has formed a bond with another single mother (Milena Smit’s Ana) due to them giving birth at the same time (hence the title). This mother centric storytelling is a comfortable zone for Almodovar, (his enduring classic being All About My Mother 1999). When watching an Almodovar film, queer content, fully fleshed out female protagonists (who claim their identity on their own, often in spite of men and never because of them) and an exploration of motherhood feels very standard, even if this territory is actually, very disappointingly, quite alien from the wider cinematic landscape. Though, while remaining in this zone, Almodovar continually finds new narratives.
Here, our plot catalyst is a debate about the paternity of Janis’ child. Here, the seemingly obvious father, an anthropologist (Israel Elejalde) questions whether the child is his. It is an engaging setup that allows for a succession of twists and turns, and for a fulfilling narrative. Additionally, it is a device through which to make a film about female bonding in the absence of masculinity, told in front of a backdrop of an exploration of Franco’s Spain (where a character is literally involved in digging up a mass grave). The ghosts of the past impacting the present is another persistent Almodovar theme; the subplot of the mass grave brings more specificity but the thematic territory is certainly familiar. Though, through exploring this theme, Almodovar is able to craft a satisfying grander narrative about silenced stories and generational storytelling, and the bonds and solidarity that arises from this. As previously mentioned, the political element is a worthwhile addition; however, it realistically exists solely as a bookending narrative, this causes slight narrative ripples but is somewhat side-lined. Outside of this, Parallel Mothers is a twisting Almodovarian drama in which the plot is surprisingly predictable. Maybe it’s because we’ve seen him take on this territory before, but elements designed to be huge surprises now seem like eventualities (the end revelation about parentage being rather obvious from the start, purely because we know Almodovar likes to play narrative games). The pieces in play are so familiar (the location, the relationship dyamics, the themes) that any seasoned Almodovar watcher (which will be most of the audience) will know exactly where it is going. Watching the film go through the motions is satisfying, this is a master storyteller at work, but is an overly familiar experience.
But, familiar Almodovar is still a hell of a thing. The filmmaking is still beautiful. He is such a stunning visualist, with each frame feeling meticulously designed. His compositions have the look of paintings, his trademark usage of blocks of colour still a visual treat. It is all so intricate, with deliberate production design creating a ravishing and theatrical world, the perfect backdrop for a melodrama. It is a sensuous approach to filmmaking, and it is what makes these overly emotional narratives really work: a skilful impressionism that is always in concert with heightened emotion. In Almodovar’s filmic universe, melodrama makes sense and never feels clichéd.
As you would expect, the central performances are immaculate. Penelope Cruz continues to be integral to so much of Almodovar’s filmmaking; as usual, the film bends around her as her qualities shine through. She truly takes ownership of the film, an approach that only heightens the key themes of motherhood and feminine independence. It is a defiant performance, but one of subtle and delicate defiance, a beautifully bold character with real layers and humanity. Milena Smit is the perfect companion to this, bringing something different to complicate the dynamic in intelligent ways as well as being symbolic of a more youthful femininity. Through her, the film looks forward while Penelope Cruz allows it to both live in the present and to stare into the past.
It is easy to be overly critical of Parallel Mothers, it is Almodovar in comfort mode (arguably on a kind of autopilot). But, this doesn’t mean a lack of skill or satisfaction. It is a tried and tested formula done well and upheld by superb performances. For the uninitiated, the film may be a revelation, as it charts a psychological landscape, and a range of emotion, that most of cinema just ignores (or handles poorly). But, when considered among his wider filmography, Parallel Mothers suddenly becomes somewhat unremarkable. In the end, in a year where he has released two projects, this and The Human Voice (2021), what was needed was a work that split the difference. The aesthetic daring of his short paired with the skilful storytelling of his feature would be something truly special. Instead, we are left seeing both ends of the Almodovar spectrum, and wishing he could work in the middle.