The decision to have a child is never an easy one. At least it shouldn’t be. When you decide to have a child, you also decide to be a parent and at that moment every other decision that follows in your life will be with that small person, or persons, in mind. You may occasionally allow yourself to be selfish from time to time, but you will always return to the fact that another life is relying on you to help it grow, learn, and be mentally and physically prepared for what’s to come. Life, in general, is not this clear cut, and navigating your own insecurities and shortcomings is a challenge unto itself. That’s why we take what we learned from our family and friends, especially our parents and grandparents, and figure out how best to see it through. Even that isn’t a guaranteed recipe for success, and yet we endure the painful struggle of problem-solving for their sake.
In Parallel Mothers, directed by Pedro Almodóvar, Janis (Penélope Cruz) is a fashion photographer who meets a man named Arturo. After some conversation and wine, they form a passionate romance. It inevitably leads to an unexpected pregnancy, but Janis decides to go it alone since Arturo is still married. Once she is in labor, she shares a room at the hospital with a fellow single mother-to-be named Ana (Milena Smit), a young girl excited and nervous to share her life with another. Janis has a loving best friend named Elena (Rossy de Palma), who works in the fashion industry, and Ana has an overprotective mother named Teresa (Aitana Sánchez-Gijón). When their children are born, Cecilia for Janis and Anita to Ana, we see how their lives play out in starkly different ways. Their age differences provide a wonderful contrast to their experiences, but both find strength in each other’s resilience and perseverance. Janis initially struggles less as a single mother, having more resources at her disposal, but Milena learns to stand on her own and become more self-reliant when others let her down.
The driving force of this film is the performances of both Penélope Cruz and Milena Smit. Their chemistry with each other and how their relationship grows throughout the film make their journey a wonderful experience. Cruz conveys that powerful woman who has navigated enough problems to know where the solution lies and how to avoid the same problem next time. Milena Smit is a young, apprehensive woman who finds her voice through adversity and will do anything to protect her daughter. The energy and earnestness Milena demonstrates infuses this film with another layer of emotion. Almodóvar is no stranger to talented actors and brings together a great supporting cast as well. What I particularly enjoyed is the nuance. None of them are saints, although Elena is pretty awesome, all of them lead with good intentions. So many decisions are made with good intentions that yield unfortunate consequences. Still, some decisions and mistakes are completely out of their control. What they do in those moments is where this movie shines.
There is a major plot point that changes the trajectory of our lead characters in drastic ways. It’s significant enough in mentioning, but alters your initial perception of the film if I told you what it was outright. Suffice it to say, Janis and Ana have more than enough setbacks to contend with outside of being mothers.
Another significant subplot that follows this main story is regarding the Spanish Civil War and the execution of rebel brothers and fathers. Janis has a great-grandfather buried in an unmarked grave that she wants to be excavated along with several others. Arturo, being a forensic anthropologist, has the connections to make that happen. The addition of this subplot is significant to the overall theme of the film since it deals with absent fathers. Whether that father was absent by choice or, in this case, removed by force. How involved a parent is can determine how their child processes their own feelings, setting the outcome for future relationships. There are descendants from families who lost loved ones during that war still angry and resentful about what happened.
The city of Madrid and the surrounding countryside provide the backdrop for this story. The movie allows the audience to learn about the local culture in its own way. Introducing an American girl studying abroad who plays an absent-minded, live-in nanny is something I found fascinating. I wouldn’t have thought to hire a foreign college student to take care of my newborn. Perhaps options were limited. We also get to see scenes at cafes, shops, and other locations that add to the atmosphere. I credit the cinematographer José Luis Alcaine. He presents Spanish life and family life beautifully.
If I gave this film any critique, it would maybe be for the editing. It doesn’t feel like the story is large enough to sustain the runtime. More than anything I felt it dragged out the suspenseful beats a little too long. I also found the skipping back and forth between moments in time to be clever but a bit jarring. It made sense in a film like The Father where memory loss was the theme that encouraged the premise. This film’s strength is its women and how they discover their strength. I know the audience is leaving the present to view a past moment along with the character, but it feels gimmicky when you jumble moments in time for the purpose of clever filmmaking. Maybe it comes across better on the page.
Parallel Mothers is an outstanding film and I highly recommend it. Penélope Cruz is remarkable as well as Milena Smit. The world of motherhood may not be entertaining for everyone. It’s a subset of many genres that can be funny, heartfelt, and terrifying. Sometimes all at once. The memories we share with our family for generations permeate our genes and can be both a blessing and a curse. It shapes who we are and what we become for better or worse. Our children are the result of our lessons and our habits. Do right by them, hope for the best, and work on the rest.
About Parallel Mothers
Synopsis: The story of two mothers who give birth the same day. The bond they share unveils new challenges and revelations about their old family and new.
Director: Pedro Almodóvar
Writer: Pedro Almodóvar
Stars: Penélope Cruz, Milena Smit, Rossy de Palma, Aitana Sánchez-Gijón, Israel Elejalde
Runtime: 2 Hours, 3 Minutes
Releases: December 24th, 2021 (USA)