PARALLEL MOTHERS (Madres paralelas)

Producer: Agustín Almodóvar   Director: Pedro Almodóvar   Screenplay: Pedro Almodóvar   Cast: Penélope Cruz, Milena Smit, Israel Elejalde, Aitana Sánchez-Gijón, Rossy de Palma, Julieta Serrano. Adelfa Calvo, Ainhoa Santamaria, Daniela Santiago and Ana Peleteiro   Distributor: Sony Pictures Classics

Grade: B+

Excavations into the past can have wrenching results, as renowned Spanish writer-director Pedro Almodóvar demonstrates in “Parallel Mothers.”  Blending history and domestic drama, the film is undoubtedly melodramatic, but in Almodóvar’s shrewd hands melodrama can be an exceptionally powerful tool. 

The film opens with Janis Martinez (Penélope Cruz), a magazine photographer, engaged in a shoot with forensic archaeologist Arturo (Israel Elejalde).  During a break she asks his help in arranging for a recovery mission at the site of a reported mass grave near her home village, where her great-grandfather and other local men were buried after being murdered by fascist followers of Franco during the Spanish civil war of the 1930s.  He explains that although government funding for such recovery efforts has been eliminated, he will try to arrange a dig through a private foundation he’s associated with.

And though Arturo is married, he and Janis have a passionate affair, and she finds herself pregnant.  He won’t leave his wife, who’s undergoing cancer treatment, and even suggests an abortion.  But Janis will hear none of that: she intends having the child and raising it alone.

In the hospital she shares a room with another expectant mother, young, depressed Ana (Milena Smit), who—as is eventually revealed—is with child as a result of rape.  Her none-too-reliable support system is her mother Teresa (Aitana Sánchez-Gijón), an actress still hoping for a break that will take her from small parts to leading roles.  The two women become friends and deliver almost simultaneously—both lovely daughters.

With the help of her best friend, editor Elena (Rossy de Palma), Janis resumes work, while Ana returns to living with her mother.  But when Teresa secures the lead in a production of Federico García Lorca’s “Doña Rosita la soltera”—about an abandoned woman—Ana goes off on her own and secures a job as a waitress in a café near Janis’ apartment.  Janis, meanwhile, dismisses her au pair, and when she encounters Ana at the café and learns that her daughter Anita has died of SIDS, she invites the girl to move in with her to help care for infant Cecilia.

Ana readily agrees, and the two become, in effect, joint mothers to Cecilia.  But Janis is haunted by doubts, prompted by Arturo’s uncertainty that the child is his, about whether she is actually the child’s mother.  So she investigates, using home tests to discover the truth.  While that domestic issue is resolved, so too is the issue of the mass grave: Arturo secures funding for whatever might be buried to be exhumed.

As has been the case with Almodóvar’s work in the past, “Parallel Mothers” might recall the work of Douglas Sirk not only in its portrayal of the often painful lives of women, but in the elegance of its images. Antxón Gómez’s production design fills the interiors with exquisite detail, Paolo Torres’ costumes help fill the characterizations, and cinematographer José Luis Alcaine adds luster to the visual palette.  Alcaine, along with editor Teresa Font, is also an important contributor in generating the suspense that comes increasingly to dominate the film’s second half as secrets are revealed—a factor in which Alberto Iglesias’ insistent, hypnotic score also plays a significant role.

And as usual the director secures remarkable performances from his mostly female cast.  Cruz, as a woman torn between conflicting emotions is extraordinary, delivering what is certainly one of the highlights of her career, and newcomer Smit dexterously captures the multiple physical and emotional transformations of Ana.  No less impressive are Sánchez-Gijón, whose admission of her lack of maternal instinct in pursuit of a career provides a strong contrast to Janis and Ana, and de Palma, as staunchly supportive Elena.  And in what amount to a cameo, veteran Julieta Serrano manages a heartbreaking glimpse of the continuing grief the political-military conflicts of the 1930s has left as a legacy to the country.  As the story’s sole major male figure, Elejalde can’t compete with these formidable females, but in the end he too emerges as a consequential person.

The term “women’s picture: is frequently deployed in a pejorative sense.  But some women’s pictures were among the best films of the forties and fifties, and “Parallel Mothers” is one of the best of 2021.