The genius of Pedro Almodóvar has often been taken for granted. While his actors and actresses have found critical and award success, the famed filmmaker often sees himself pushed to the fringe. This is not surprising, as Almodóvar traffics in taboos for his stories. Complex narratives about sexuality, queer culture, and moral quandaries can make for boundary-pushing narratives. Luckily, cinephiles continue to embrace his work, regardless of which direction he takes his stories. His latest film, Parallel Mothers, sees Almodóvar reunite with frequent collaborator Penélope Cruz, resulting in one of the most emotionally fraught and morally complicated stories of his storied career.
Parallel Mothers follows Janis (Cruz), a photographer attempting to recover her family remains. On a shoot, she meets Arturo (Israel Elejalde), an archeologist with access to the connections she needs. The two begin an affair, and Janis soon becomes pregnant. While giving birth, Janis meets a young mother named Ana (Milena Smit), and the two quickly bond. In the years that follow, the two mothers become entangled in ways they would expect.
Parallel Mothers might be Almodóvar’s angriest film, as its purpose is clear. In a world where neighbors can harm each other, and the world will not hold them liable, sometimes we need honesty. It’s a highly potent message in 2022, and for Almodóvar, his turn towards a different kind of politics shows a new side to the filmmaker. While sex and love are interwoven into the story, his stand towards decency rings true. Confronting his own country and people about the darker side of their history is not an easy decision. Rather than ignore the truth that stares him in the face, he wants to return the dead back to those who carry the burdens of survival.
As usual, Almodóvar approaches his material with his unique vision of the world. His characters struggle with tough decisions and the secrets that haunt their existence. Almodóvar’s screenplay subtly plants seeds that his actresses nurture. Cruz delivers some of the best work of her career, haunted by events she had no control over. We do not see her actively engage with death, but it looms over her. The stress she showcases and the internal fears that push her can be read in every facial expression. When Almodóvar provides her the release valve for the emotional build-up, she makes subtle and unexpected choices that remain in line with the character we’ve grown to love.
Almodóvar provides another showcase for an emerging actress. Smit takes full advantage of her opportunity, living in the role of young Ana. She inhabits the complicated and confusing world of being in your early twenties. Yet the world can be complex and take from even the youngest of us. Smit’s stellar performance can be mapped through her stellar transformation. Smit has movie star potential, and Almodóvar provides her the showcase to reach that potential.
Parallel Mother features impeccable artisan craft. Costumer Paola Torres provides the signature looks present on every character in the film. Torres embraces his director’s taste for color and helps communicate character ideologies with simple flourishes. The costumes shine in every frame and become a lynchpin in the storytelling. The apartments and locations of the film pop with color as well. Designers Antxón Gómez, Alejandra Loiseau, and Vicent Díaz craft a dynamic world but shine brightest in their minimalist work at the end of the film.
With so much style on display, it’s no wonder that cinematographer José Luis Alcaine shines again. Alcaine provided some of Almodóvar’s best cinematography to date with Pain and Glory, and he takes a huge step up in Parallel Mothers. Every frame is immaculate and purposeful. Alcaine is at his best when capturing Janis and Ana’s emotional turmoil, framing them perfectly within each shot. Composer Alberto Iglesias provides career-best work to compliment the film’s visuals and emotional swells.
Once again, Almodóvar has crafted a story that could only come from his unique approach to life. It is a brilliant film from start to finish and never rests on his reputation. Instead, he pushes his actresses to shine brighter than ever, and his craft team creates enduring images. Almodóvar remains one of our most essential filmmakers and once again affirms his place as a master.