Brace yourself for a bit of cinematic heresy: I run hot and cold on Pedro Almodóvar. Now, I always appreciate what he’s up to, but as often as I’m bowled over by him, I’m often left appreciating more than liking his films. Frankly, something like The Skin I Live In or I’m So Excited, decidedly minor Almodóvar works, tend to be more memorable to me than the classics like All About My Mother, Bad Education, or Volver. That’s just how he hits me. His brand of melodrama simply isn’t my bag all the time. So, I may have been less than enthused that the New York Film Festival made their Closing Night Selection this year Parallel Mothers. That being said, having now seen it, I get what all the fuss is about. The movie may not be as amazing to me as for most, but it’s certainly good cinema. The flick ends NYFF59 on a strong note, to be sure.
Parallel Mothers is a tale that seems simple on the surface, but has a lot going on beneath it. Sure, that’s not uncommon for Almodóvar, but here it’s even more deceptively simple than usual. Instead of being a detriment to the final product, the film utilizes that to its advantage, sneaking up on you. Whereas his last effort, Pain and Glory, didn’t always seem like it was following a smooth trajectory, here that is decidedly the case.
When photographer Janis (Penélope Cruz) meets Arturo (Israel Elejalde) during a shoot, the last thing she’s expecting is a love affair. In particular, it comes as a surprise after asking him for his help, considering his expertise, in helping to excavate a mass grave with her grandfather in it. Furthermore, an accidental pregnancy is just as unexpected. Nine mothers later, Janis is planning to be a single mother, but not at all unhappy about it. In the hospital, she meets Ana (Milena Smit), who is in a similar position, but none too happy about it. When their daughters are born, a bond begins.
Without getting into what happens next, the story follows both women as their connection to each other grows. Eventually taking in Ana, Janis uses her as a caregiver for her baby, and then more. Of course, this being an Almodóvar work, there’s more to it than that. Much more, in fact, with melodramatic moments around many a corner.
Penélope Cruz and Milena Smit are splendid here, with Cruz again upping her game for this filmmaker. Smit has a bit where she leaves the narrative more than you’d like, otherwise her performance would be nearly as impressive as Cruz’s. She really is compelling. Cruz, while not surprising, is amazing, acting with her face in a way that always raises the emotion. In addition to Israel Elejalde, supporting players include Rossy de Palma, Aitana Sánchez-Gijón, and more.
Writer/director Pedro Almodóvar is working within a real comfort zone, but it’s not to his detriment. Tales of mothers, women, and family are nothing new for him, though with Parallel Mothers, there’s an added political element. That helps to make his writing not seem at all derivative, while his direction is again precise. It may not ever blow me away, but I recognize a master when I see one.
Parallel Mothers closes out NYFF on a dramatic note. If the melodrama of an Almodóvar effort delights you, you’re going to find this to be among his best. Even if you don’t Cruz’s performance is more than enough to make this one worth recommending. Spain missed the mark in not submitting this as their official Oscar entry, but regardless of that, this is quality cinema.