Spanish director Pedro Almodovar has entered into a prolific collaboration with Penelope Cruz, showcasing the star in new and exciting ways. Cruz’s talent has never been in question–she commanded attention in Blow, and in blockbusters like Vanilla Sky and Pirates of the Caribbean— but it seems only Almodovar can access her maternal side. They first teamed up on All About My Mother, in which Cruz plays a nun who is pregnant. There are some parallels between that film and their latest collaboration, Parallel Mothers, but this time Cruz takes top-billing, and Almodovar channels notions of maternity and grief through her feminine gaze.

In Parallel Mothers, Cruz plays, well, a mother. Her character, Janis, is a photographer whose relationship with a married anthropologist (Israel Elejalde) results in pregnancy. Nine months later, she meets another mother-to-be, Ana (Milena Smit), a teenager whose child was conceived under very different circumstances. Both give birth on the same day, to girls, and just before they head their separate ways, they exchange numbers in hopes of meeting again. Before you know what’s coming, items are swapped, spouses are dumped, lives are lost, and secrets are revealed.

You can count on there being more soapy twists in two hours than in an entire season of General Hospital. This is Almodovar, after all. The difference between Parallel Mothers and General Hospital, however, is stark. Almodovar focuses on the hearts and minds of mothers, the bond between them visualized with color, light, furniture and food. In each of his collabs with Cruz, the design underscores connection.

Still, this is not just a film about friendship, but a rumination on the history of Spain and the country’s tumultuous past. The film is more political than you might expect. Janis, who lives in Madrid, wants to open a mass grave in her home village, where her great-grandfather was murdered in the Spanish Civil War and never properly buried. Meanwhile, she has other things to worry about. When Arturo (Elejalde) comes to see the baby, he confesses that he doesn’t think it’s his. Janis is outraged (she hasn’t slept with anyone else), but she has her own doubts, and genetic testing confirms something she doesn’t want to know and can’t even begin to comprehend. So she asks Ana to be her maid, with the intention of finding out the truth. Within their conversations, dots are connected between the babies and the misplaced, soon-to-be exhumed soldiers in Ana’s hometown.

Parallel Mothers is richly layered and almost meditative in its pace, but the film stops to observe breathtaking moments of banal beauty. A shot of the two women, cutting potatoes, bathed sunshine and back-light, is simple yet unforgettable, as is a scene at a graveyard where the past miraculously collides with the present. These moments and scenes are prosaic, but Almodovar treats them with attention, care and utmost tenderness. He digs through the rough, earthy layers of his characters with an archeologist’s touch, and scours every inch of their bodies, hearts and minds for details. He doesn’t have to dig deep when Cruz is on screen. With a blink of her Mediterranean eyes, she conveys everything Almodovar wants to say. More than anything, Parallel Mothers is a testament to their collaboration, in which even the soapiest of stories can emerge coherent, touching and grand.

Read more of Asher Luberto’s reviews here.


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