No matter how hard we try to escape it, we’re all children of history. It defines the life of a country and, by consequence, that of its citizens. One thing that we may do is try to change it for the better, to be “a good citizen”, to be a positive influence.
Janis Martinez (Penélope Cruz) is a successful photographer in Madrid. She’s passionate, she’s beautiful, she’s independent. For years she’s also been working on uncovering a mass grave near her family’s house in the Spanish countryside, a grave where the bodies of her ancestors, brutally killed at the onset of the Civil War, are buried. She finds help in Arturo, who works as a mediator in the operation. Her relationship with Arturo brings an unexpected child: during Janis’ stay at the hospital, she meets Ana (Milena Smit), a teenager who shares her room at the maternity unity. They have different approaches to the event: while Janis feels this pregnancy can change the course of her life, Ana is much more reluctant, given her experience in a dysfunctional family. Nonetheless, they instantly form a bond which will change their lives forever.
For many years Spanish film master Pedro Almodóvar has been working on his new film Madres Paralelas (Parallel Mothers), chosen to open 2021’s Venice Film Festival, first writing the screenplay then getting the funds for the production. The long gestation of this movie is easily explained by the fact that at the core of it all is a taboo subject for Spanish society: what happened during the Civil War? Almodóvar tries to bring this subject up about a country that refuses to confront its history, rather deciding to keep its head in the sand. That way, the wounds are left unhealed, the scars are never a thing of the past. Those wounds are the people who died during the war, who never received the dignity of a proper burial, but they’re also the people who feel betrayed by a country that has decided to move on and remove the memory of its past. Memory: another taboo word for Spain and for its Prime Ministers (like former PM Mariano Rajoy, directly mentioned at the beginning of the movie). In this context, Janis warmly welcomes her pregnancy because it gives her the opportunity for a future that she thought might never come. Despite coming from completely different paths (as hinted by the film’s title), Janis’ and Ana’s lives become inextricably entangled, their roles constantly reversed, their certainties constantly shattered, identity a shapeshifting monster. They fight a civil war of their own, made of fights, affection, intimacy, distrust. They are deeply imperfect mothers, leading their imperfect lives striving for the best. They make mistakes, they struggle, but they never cease to be human, relatable, understandable. Almodóvar, whose direction exudes confidence, doesn’t shy away from unpleasant moments, unexpected turns, and though not everything works, the result is still very powerful.
At the center of the movie is an expectedly great cast: Penélope Cruz is sensational as Janis, a true powerhouse performance from Spain’s leading actress and the world’s closest heir to Sophia Loren and Anna Magnani, but she wouldn’t be as good as she is if she didn’t share the screen with the luminous Milena Smit, whose Ana is a strong-willed yet fragile young woman, achingly searching for human connection; Aitána Sanchez-Gijón too gives a great supporting performance as Teresa, a mother split between two worlds, while Rossy de Palma, one of Almodóvar’s most beloved and reliable chicas, leaves her usual mark with her humor and her profound compassion.
After a return to form with the extraordinary Pain and Glory, Pedro Almodóvar proves himself as one of the greats again, coming back with his most political movie, a scream of pain and anger and another terrific portrayal of women and mothers, stranded in a country that left its conscience in a grave with both the living and the dead.
This review is from the Venice Film Festival. Sony Pictures Classics will release Parallel Mothers in New York and Los Angeles on December 24 and expand in January.
Photo courtesy of Biennale Venezia Cinema