Early reviews of Pedro Almodóvar’s Parallel Mothers, which has just opened this year’s Venice Film Festival, range from lukewarm to hot. At the Film Stage, David Katz finds that the Spanish director’s twenty-second feature “has that slightly stilted, over-heightened quality that characterizes Almodóvar’s weaker pictures, and with a sting of disappointment, one can sense it from the opening ten minutes.” But for Jessica Kiang at the Playlist, “this extravagant, exuberant, magnificently messy movie, punch-drunk on story and delirious with drama, is the antidote to a cinematic lethargy you may not even have known you were feeling, until one of its legitimately insane plot pirouettes forcibly reminds you just how much dimension and chaos and vitality a flat beam of light projected onto a wall can contain.”
Critics do agree on two points. First, the less you know going in, the better. Catherine Bray enthusiastically recommends Parallel Mothers, but she’s going to hold back from “telling you things I would personally rather not know before watching it.” Second, the lead performances from Penélope Cruz and relative newcomer Milena Smit—this is only her second feature—are outstanding. For Marc van de Klashorst, writing for the International Cinephile Society, “they almost single-handedly save the disjointed film around them.”
Cruz’s Janis—her hippie mother was a Janis Joplin fan—is a professional photographer going on forty who has a fling with Arturo (Israel Elejalde), a forensic archaeologist. When she becomes pregnant, she’s on her own—which is fine by her. She comes from a long line of single mothers. Arturo is tied up caring for his terminally ill wife, but he will help Janis open a rural mass grave into which her great-grandfather, a Republican victim of the Spanish Civil War, was unceremoniously tossed. The Guardian’s Xan Brooks suggests that Parallel Mothers is “an autopsy of dark Spanish history dressed up as a bright baby shower.”
As Janis’s due date approaches, she meets Smit’s Ana at the hospital. A good twenty years or so younger than Janis, Ana seems terrified by the prospect of raising a child alone. Her only support is her mother, Teresa (Aitana Sánchez-Gijón), an actress preparing to leave Madrid to tour the provinces with her theatrical troupe. Janis, on the other hand, can count on help from her friend and editor, Elena (Rossy de Palma). Janis and Ana give birth to daughters on the same day, and a sort of ad hoc family, too, is born.
Parallel Mothers is “as serious as any film Almodóvar has made, but in this case he hasn’t let go of his luminously light, beguiling, puckish side,” writes Variety’s Owen Gleiberman. “After the contemplative Julieta and the searching semi-autobiography of Pain and Glory,” writes the Telegraph’s Robbie Collin, “Parallel Mothers feels like a return for Almodóvar to the more playful, scheming territory of Broken Embraces. Shadows loom, bedroom curtains billow libidinously, and shock rings at the doorbell are perfectly timed. The mood regularly takes a turn for the Hitchcockian: Alberto Iglesias’s luxuriously bleary score sounds like Bernard Herrmann after one too many sangrias.”
Several reviewers suggest that Cruz may be giving her best performance yet in Parallel Mothers, and that Smit is, as Almodóvar has said himself, a “revelation.” In the Hollywood Reporter,David Rooney also finds it “gratifying to see the divine de Palma—who returned after a long break to working with Almodóvar in 2016’s Julieta—embrace the role of the supportive older woman with such style, warmth and natural humor. And veteran Julieta Serrano, never more memorable than as the wronged housewife in Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, has a touching single scene as the last surviving direct link to the sorrow that has haunted Janis’s family for generations.”
In Screen,Lee Marshall notes that “Spain’s most celebrated living director started out as a flamboyant and occasionally flippant outsider, both charting and driving the ‘movida Madrilena’ in a series of gleefully provocative indie films. In his latest, he has become something very like the elder statesman of all that is anti-establishment Spain—reminding a forgetful country of the historical anger and desire for retribution following the death of Franco which underlined the movida in the first place.” Time’s Stephanie Zacharek points out that there are “no villains in Parallel Mothers, beyond political ones: Almodóvar is interested in extreme drama, with its inherent joy and emotional turmoil, but he also makes room for forgiveness. There is no future without it.”
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