The through line running across writer-director Pedro Almodóvar’s “Parallel Mothers” is the strength and resilience of mothers, often in the absence — voluntary and otherwise — of men. That lesson is shared by two connected but distinct storylines that, while impactful on their own, detract from each other when shoehorned together. The result is a tantalizing tale of romance, friendship and betrayal revolving around the bounds of womanhood, bookended by a historical fulcrum that seemingly belongs in another movie.
Penélope Cruz (rarely better) stars as Janis, a 40-something fashion photographer who solicits the help of Arturo (Israel Elejalde), a forensic anthropologist, to aid in the excavation of a mass grave in Janis’s hometown where her ancestors and others were killed during Francisco Franco’s bloody reign. Janis soon begins a fling with the married Arturo, resulting in her pregnancy. While giving birth in a Madrid hospital, the happily pregnant Janis meets Ana (Milena Smit), a scared teenager with an unwanted pregnancy.
Janis and Ana form a kinship and exchange numbers before leaving the ward. Later, Janis ends her relationship with Arturo after he expresses skepticism about his paternity. After meeting at a coffee shop, Janis and Ana rekindle a friendship that eventually evolves into an affair. In the meantime, both Janis and Ana discover and share secrets about their respective children that threaten to upend each other’s lives.
The primary storyline, involving Janis and Ana, has the intrigue of an Alfred Hitchcock psycho-sexual thriller, no surprise given the longstanding esteem Almodóvar holds for Hitchcock. Cruz is engrossing as an almost middle-aged woman grappling with life as a single career woman, single mother, and a yearning to exhume some connection to her past. By contrast, Ana is naive and yet also calculating. In Janis, Ana sees a friend, then a lover, and also the maternal figure lacking in Ana’s relationship with her own absentee mother, Teresa (Aitana Sánchez-Gijón), an actress and exacting presence in Ana’s life.
It all sets the stage for a dramatic denouement that fizzles when, at the storyline’s taut apex, Almodóvar opts to resolve any narrative tension by shifting its focus back to Janis’s excavation project. The climax is bracing and plaintive, capturing the historical pain of the past and the common bond shared by the women left to carry on after the brutality of men.
But the abrupt change derails the contemplative, carefully constructed plotline involving Janis and Ana, casting aside their multi-layered interrelation for an ending that is elegiac, but also resolves everything before it in tidy fashion. “Parallel Mothers” shares the lesson Almodóvar wants to tell, but at the expense of the story it was made to tell.
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