Janis (Penélope Cruz) was named after Janis Joplin by her mother who died aged 27 of a drug overdose. Approaching forty and having always wanted children, when she discovers she is accidentally pregnant by a married man, decides to keep the baby.
The man, Arturo (Israel Elejalde), a forensic anthropologist is helping her to uncover her great grandfather’s grave. A victim of a vicious war crime that affected every family in the village she calls home. The Spanish civil war seems to hang over the characters like a looming shadow. With each family relationship being fraught with splits of opinions reflecting the political situation at the time.
Both Janis, and Ana (Milena Smit) come from broken, unstable homes. A series of single mothers and disrupted starts, starting with this horrific event so many years ago. The civil war subplot, a campaign for an archaeology dig of a mass grave seems pointless in some ways. But it anchors these characters in the shadow of a conflict that broke families. Thematic similarities bridge both stories.
Janis meets Ana when they are both in labour in hospital sharing a room. Ana is much younger, a teen mother with little confidence, compared to Janis’s quiet surety and determination. An unlikely friendship strikes up between them, and in between fits and starts, eventually Ana moves in with Janis as a housekeeper and Nanny. Generations of women continue to support each other to raise children where men are unavailable.
With a plot that wouldn’t be out of place in a Hallmark channel movie, it would be easy to dismiss Parallel Mothers as contrived melodramatic nonsense. But that ignores everything that makes it compelling. The actions of the characters when faced with impossible news is believable, anchored by Cruz and Smit’s stunning performances.
The unrealistic plot, combined with realistic reactions and chemistry between its stars helps the plot to land even when it strays towards the ludicrous. Director and writer Pedro Almodóvar owns this unrealism, by placing his characters in rooms that span the full colour spectrum and contrasting that further in the costuming. José Luis Alcaine’s stunning cinematography brings out this colour palette in vivid detail.
It’s perhaps a niche storyline, unashamedly European and even more unashamedly Spanish, leaning into the fraught political situation there and across Europe. Ana’s mother, an actress, talks about how the other actors are all left wing, neglecting to confirm her own political view. Perhaps a reflection of how many people secretly harbour more right-wing controversial viewpoints. Particularly in older generations. Without context this isn’t immediately apparent, but it’s surely relatable.
The Blu-ray is unfortunately vanilla, boasting virtually no bonus features aside from a trailer which is a shame. Some interviews would have been a nice way to get further insight on the film, especially for an international audience.
Parallel Mothers won’t be a film for everyone. But its stunning cinematography and anchoring performances help this bizarrely plotted melodrama to land on its feet.
Own Pedro Almodóvar’s BAFTA and Oscar Nominated PARALLEL MOTHERS on Digital Download now and available on Blu-Ray, DVD and Video on Demand from 16th May