Coming off of the extremely personal “Pain and Glory,” Spanish filmmaker Pedro Almodóvar’s latest film reaches for something bigger. Though it spends much of its runtime giving the viewer a beautiful look at motherhood via a switched-at-birth scenario — handled with much more care than such stories usually are — it also looks at family lineage and dynamics through the lens of those who were lost during the 1936-1939 Spanish Civil War.
Set in 2016, Penélope Cruz (“The 355”) is stellar in the film as Janis, a new single mother whose baby is accidentally switched with another mother’s at the hospital. Her performance is tender and intimate, and the emotions Cruz is able to conjure are raw and powerful. There are plenty of scenes where Cruz is forced to navigate very layered complex feelings, and she nails all of them. For example, when Janis finally reveals to Ana (Milena Smit, “Cross the Line”), a fellow single mother with whom Janis gave birth, that their babies were switched at birth and that Ana’s real child is actually still alive, Cruz must show grief, guilt, desperation and regret as the emotions all pour out at the same time. She handles it extremely well and is complemented by Almodóvar’s direction, which places her in shadows throughout the sequence and has her constantly chasing Ana from room to room as an almost horror-film-esque score plays in the background.
What I find most fascinating about “Parallel Mothers” is that, while it is about grieving the loss of loved ones, the loved ones who are lost are never met by the characters. Anita is technically Janis’s child, but her grief and sense of loss are akin to mourning strangers. Similarly, a major subplot in the film involves Janis trying to find the remains of her great-grandfather and others who were murdered and buried in a mass grave by Franco’s soldiers during the Spanish Civil War. The final sequence involves the entire village coming together to grieve their family members after they are found, but almost everyone in the village is too young to know any of the people that were buried there.
This narrative in the film is an important depiction of Spanish Civil War history, a history that I’m unfortunately not familiar enough with to fully understand. That’s not a problem with the film — a Spanish film made by a Spanish filmmaker primarily for Spanish audiences is obviously going to assume the viewer has knowledge of these things — and, if anything, it should be to the film’s credit that it has made me want to go learn more about these aspects.
But the choice to include this subplot is certainly intentional and has some thematic significance to be unlocked. Almodóvar has said in interviews that this film is him finally coming to terms with the Franco regime. There’s even a scene in which Janis criticizes the young Ana for not wanting to look back at the past — Ana is not referring to the Civil War, but the context works for both Janis’s view of the Franco era and Ana’s view of her family life. For someone with a greater knowledge of Spanish history, this should add another fascinating element to an already excellent film.
“Parallel Mothers” has been described as one of Almodóvar’s lighter and more accessible works, and while it is both of those things, that doesn’t make the text any less rich and complex. While viewers with knowledge of Franco-era Spanish history will likely get a lot more from this, Almodóvar’s script still has plenty of engaging drama and emotional narrative for less familiar audiences.
Daily Arts Writer Mitchel Green can be reached at email@example.com.