‘Parallel Mothers’ Explores Motherhood as a Fraught, Contentious Arena

Janis (Penelope Cruz), a fashion photographer, is in search of her (literal) past. After a photo shoot with a forensic archeologist, Arturo (Israel Elejalde), she asks him to help excavate the remains of her great grandfather in her native village. Janis and Arturo have an affair; she gets pregnant. She meets a teenage girl, Ana (Milena Smit), at the hospital, who has also just become a mother. Two mothers, two babies, missing fathers: Arturo doesn’t want the child (he’s married); a sexual assault caused Ana’s pregnancy. Pedro Almodóvar’s latest drama, Parallel Mothers, tells an interlocked story of two women struggling to locate their distant pasts, wounding presents and immediate futures.

Unlike many arthouse greats, Almodóvar doesn’t do subtle. Here too, an early sequence directly references the title. Both women give birth at the same time; both babies suffer from minor health complications. But there’s one crucial difference: Janis wants to be a mother; Ana doesn’t. When Arturo sees the baby, he says it can’t be his. Janis remains adamant — how can she not know? But the film snakes up to her (and us) with a different question altogether, a question not related to the identity of the father, but the identity of the… mother.

Motherhood is a fraught, contentious arena in this movie. It is not just personal but also generational. Ana’s mother, Teresa (Aitana Sánchez-Gijón), lacking “maternal instinct”, always wanted to be an actor. A reluctant mother and a late bloomer, she deserts her baby-sitting duties to travel and act in a famous play. Ana isn’t pleased; she isn’t surprised, either. Chances are high that if asked about Teresa, Ana would say that she was hardly a mother. The film is preoccupied with this question: Who is a ‘real’ mother? The subsequent subplots intensify it further: Is motherhood just biological? Can you not give birth and yet be considered a mother — is such an expectation, intersecting with someone else’s life, justified? Is it entitled, cruel, or natural?

Because this film is as much about the presence of mothers as their absence. If Teresa is an absentee mother, then Janis’ mum died at the age of 27. Even Ana, barely an adult, is too young to be a mother. Motherhood, then, is also an abstract and confounding concept in this drama: something that is more discussed and debated, and less materialised and lived. It is imperilled even when it exists. Annoyed by Arturo’s suggestion, Janis takes a maternity test. (The next two lines are not spoilers, but if you’re paranoid, feel free to skip them.) The result devastates her: She is not the mother. Ana’s baby, on the other hand, suffered a recent ‘crib death’. These plot turns make the drama even more knotty, unspooling another puzzling question: Can you lose something you never had?

Even though Parallel Mothers, like many Almodóvar movies, explores its narrative and thematic strands via intricate and interconnected stories, it’s remarkably focused and clutter-free. The character motivations are sharp; the segues from Janis to Ana’s stories seamless. It even feels ‘novelistic’, as the editor Teresa Font bookends several segments with slow dissolves, as if dividing the piece into distinct chapters. There’s no single ‘transformative’ moment here: Life changes people, and people try to change their lives. Parallel Mothers looks like the assured work of a master filmmaker who, at the age of 72, is enjoying the finest sunset of his life.

You’ll find enough Almodóvarian flourishes here: colours so bright that they talk, close-ups so tight that you can peer into the characters’ souls, background score so vibrant that it makes pain haunting and melodious. Even in narrative strains: female solidarity, homosexual relationship, strong woman protagonists. His frequent collaborator, Cruz, carries the film with impressive aplomb and finesse. It’s an understated role that withholds more than it projects, that doesn’t demand as much as craves, and Cruz is a credible portrait of calm and pragmatism — and, on rare occasions, unexpected cruelty. Her counterpart Smit — almost always operating a notch higher, a probable outcome of her age — is a compelling parallel. There’s an excellent scene towards the end of the film where Ana, due to a sudden and surprising reason, gains an ‘upper hand’ over Janis. Smit conveys her position of power not through dialogues but precise and piercing mannerisms. Their contrasting energies elevate their bond which, like much else in the film, eludes convenient labels.

There’s also some political commentary here, tying the film together. Both Ana and Janis come from fractured families: If the former was an unwanted child, then the latter was a lost child (whose life featured, besides a young dead mother, a father whose “exact identity” remains unknown). Such unfulfilled households, shaping their personalities as adults, loom large on them, forcing them to commit similar mistakes. The personal and the political informs the subplot that opens and ends this film: excavating the remains of Janis’ great grandfather who died in a… Spanish Civil War — an old, ruptured country meeting a new, ruptured family. Almodóvar even slips in a cheeky dig. At one point, Teresa complains to Janis that the Spanish theatre scene is filled with “Lefties” — something that upsets her. What is her ideology? Janis asks. Well, she’s “apolitical”!

Almodóvar’s dramas are often known for their theatrical and campy lunges; as a result, they elicit searing emotions. It’s a style that hasn’t dimmed with age. His last semi-autobiographical drama, Pain and Glory, is a fitting example. But Parallel Mothers is more inwards than outwards, often undercutting its own melodrama and rescuing its characters from the irreversible hellhole of despair. It makes the movie less affecting but not less effective. Because Almodóvar is pursuing something else here: not emotional finality, but a negotiation, a conversation, a common ground. Parallel Mother’s dénouement doesn’t devastate its characters but leaves them with a possibility — of closing loops, of resolving conflicts, of excavating the dead and finding the vigour to live again.