“Parallel Mothers” ranks near the top of Spanish director Pedro Almodovar’s filmography. It’s complicated, mature, revelatory and profound.
It all starts, as many Almodovar films do, with the celebrated Spanish actress Penelope Cruz, this time playing a photographer named Janis. She is photographing Arturo (Israel Elejalde) for a magazine spread. He’s a forensic anthropologist, and she starts asking him about how to open an unmarked, mass grave that contains the body of her great-grandfather, who was murdered by the fascists during the Spanish Civil War.
Arturo works for the Association for the Recovery of Historical Memory — which, in fact, is a real organization devoted to making the crimes of Spain’s past more transparent.
Besides their mutual interest in uncovering the past, Janis and Arturo are sexually attracted to each other, and before long, Janis is in the hospital with another single woman, Ana (Milena Smit), waiting to give birth. Both will be single mothers. Janis is excited by the prospect. Ana is not. They give birth on the same day.
Both go home with their newborns. And a few months later, Janis orders coffee at a cafe and realizes that her waiter is Ana.
It turns out that Ana has lost her child to an illness, and she’s left her home and is working on her own. Janis needs help with her child and her career and invites Ana to be her live-in nanny/helper.
As is so often the case in Almodovar’s movies, sexuality exists on a spectrum, and it’s not at all unusual to see both Janis and Ana develop a sexual relationship. But Almodovar is getting at something much deeper than sexuality. He is exploring how people deny personal truths as well as historical ones.
In this case, Janis is the one who’s hiding something from Ana, and the story revolves around Janis’s coming to terms with her guilty secret — and in uncovering the shames of the Spanish Civil War.
As Janis, Cruz is brilliant, as always. She seethes over a moral dilemma, one that could upend her life. And it’s wonderful to watch the various stages of denial and recognition cross her face in Almodovar’s famous close-ups.
It’s also wonderful to see Almodovar tackle the history of fascism in Spain head-on. He has made a career of thumbing his nose at conservative European society by making outrageous, over-the-top sexy melodramas. But “Parallel Mothers” differs in remarkable ways. It has a serious sensibility. It makes us reflect on uneasy truths.
Fans of Almodovar will be happy to hear that Rossy de Palma shows up as Janis’s colleague and friend. De Palma has been almost as central to Almodovar’s acting club as Cruz. De Palma has had roles in several Almodovar classics, including “Law of Desire” and “Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown.”
“Parallel Mothers,” which opened in New York in December, has been getting rave reviews, including one in The New Yorker. It’s opening in Austin on Jan. 21. If you love Almodovar, you don’t want to miss this one.