Parallel Mothers ***
Starring: Penelope Cruz, Milena Smit, Israel Elejalde, Aitana Sánchez-Gijón, Rossy de Palma
Director: Pedro Almodóvar
Pedro Almodóvar (All About My Mother, Talk To Her) has spent more than thirty years creating some of the best films ever to come from Spain. No stranger to the Oscars, Parallel Mothers has just been double-nominated, seeing Penelope Cruz receive a second nomination for starring in his movies. So does this new movie live up to everyone’s (high) expectations? No.
Janis (Cruz - Volver, Vicky Cristina Barcelona) is giving birth in hospital alone, having split from the baby’s father (Elejalde). There she meets Ana (Smit), a pregnant teen with whom she shares an instant connection when their babies are taken into incubation together. When they get home, Janis begins to suspect that something might be awry as her baby doesn’t seem to resemble either of its parents in any way. The women remain friends - even lovers - but Janis’ discovery about her daughter remains a secret that hangs over all their heads.
With an outstanding Bernard Herrmann-esque musical score, there are times when you feel like Almodóvar is taking us into thriller territory as the double-crossing becomes all the more complicated. Unfortunately this never comes to fruition, instead never managing to speed up beyond a mild trot into a benign family drama. There’s a lot of unfulfilled potential here, with a well crafted narrative set-up petering into bland dramatic fluff by the film’s final act.
A meaty subplot about the Spanish Civil War takes up much of the film’s runtime which, fascinating as it is, feels completely askew with the rest of the story. In fact, it feels like two entirely different films, sandwiched together and with very little glue holding them together. The characters’ histories makefor the film’s most interesting viewing, but the first twenty and final ten minutes of the movie’s runtime have little bearing on the rest of story and it feels like Almodóvar couldn’t quite fully commit to making an entire film about his national heritage. Which is actually a big shame.
The film’s saving grace is undoubtedly Cruz’s performance. Magnificent in every frame, her compelling presence makes Janis a striking character, caterwauling through this zany narrative and somehow finding sense within it. And as she insistently campaigns for the exhumation of her great-grandfather’s remains from a mass grave, she presents a very human face, making sense of the Spanish people’s continuing crusade to put right the wrongs of the past. The film might not play the right notes, but Cruz certainly does. And when the film forays into bisexual territory, her confused reluctance makes for intriguing viewing, tentatively and reservedly exploring a character testing her curiosity.
For fans of Almodóvar, Parallel Mothers looks, smells and feels like the films they know and love. Unfortunately this is far from the director at the top of his game. In fact, I would venture we haven’t seen Almodóvar produce a great film since The Skin I Live In, eleven years ago.
UK Release: Out now in cinemas, released by Sony Pictures.