Rated R. In Spanish with subtitles. At AMC Boston Common, Landmark Kendall Square and Coolidge Corner Theatre.
Starting with an installation straight out of one of his beloved telenovelas, masterful writer-director Pedro Almodovar begins his latest entry “Parallel Mothers” with two expectant mothers in a maternity hospital in Madrid.
Both got pregnant by accident. One is the beautiful, middle-aged photographer Janis (Almodovar’s muse, Penelope Cruz), who had a one-night stand with someone who helped her investigate the murder of her great-grandmother. grandfather during the Spanish Civil War. The other, Ana (Milena Smit), is a scared teenager, whose mother Teresa (Aitana Sanchez-Gijon) is an ambitious middle-aged actress on tour in Federico Garcia Lorca’s play “Dona Rosita the Spinster.”
The two future mothers bond. Both mothers give birth to daughters. When Janis introduces his daughter to father Arturo (Israel Elejalde), who is also a forensic anthropologist, Arturo is surprised by the “ethnic” appearance of the child.
Arturo was hired by Janis to take care of the excavation of his great-grandfather’s remains from a mass grave outside his village. The mass murder left a huge void in the village of the deceased, where many residents still treasure the photos and belongings of their missing. The search, which resembles a macabre birth, is the film’s primary metaphor, recalling traumatic events from the past that both horrify and bind us, and the hold the past has on us.
On a hunch, Janis reconnects with Ana to learn that Ana’s child has suffered a “cradle death”.
“Parallel Mothers” will prove to us that the deaths of almost 100 years ago can be as relevant and painful as those that happened a week ago. Nearly 100,000 Spaniards were “disappeared” during the war, which continues to alienate and polarize Spanish citizens today.
Arturo is married to a woman who is battling cancer. When Janis announces her intention to have the baby, he walks away. We will learn that Ana’s pregnancy was sordid.
During the search, a glass eye will identify a skull. We hear the late Janis Joplin sing “Summertime” on the soundtrack and learn that Janis was named after this 1960s rock music icon. Notably, gay playwright Lorca was also one of the first victims of the Spanish Civil War.
“Parallel Mothers” is in many ways Almodovar’s version of James Joyce’s short story “The Dead.” Like “The Dead”, “Parallel Mothers” is about the ties that bind a small group and all Spaniards to their ancestors, exposing our strengths, our weaknesses, our identities, our secrets and our lies.
The mothers in the film are forever changed and made stronger by motherhood. It connects them to their children and to each other in ways that are both utterly surprising and utterly mundane. This makes them different from what they were before motherhood. With an award-winning performance from frequent collaborator Cruz, Almodovar weaved another artful story of passion, desire, family and ancestry. The final image of villagers still grieving will break your heart.
(“Parallel Mothers” contains sexually suggestive material.)