“Parallel Mothers”: Almodovar’s Crowning Achievement.
Since his breakthrough with “Matador” and “Law of Desire” in the mid-eighties, Spanish director Pedro Almodóvar has mostly given us one great movie after another. Even the not-so-great are always enjoyable, always watchable. He ranks right up there with Hitchcock and Fellini as one of the all-time great movie directors.
My favorite Almodóvar movie has not changed in twenty-five years. That movie is 1997’s gorgeous and sexy “Live Flesh” which featured a young actress named Penelope Cruz. Since then both director and leading lady have gone on to enormous success. His Oscar is for Best Original Screenplay (“Talk to Her”, 2002) and her Oscar is for Best Supporting Actress (“Vicky Christina Barcelona”, 2008)
A Change at The Top.
Now, however, I must announce that, having seen his masterpiece “Parallel Mothers“, “Flesh” has dropped to the number two position. There is a new movie at the top of my treasured Almodóvar catalog.
Part of what is so astounding about “Parallel Mothers” is, despite a convoluted plot that always skirts the boundaries of soap opera, it moves effortlessly from one scene to the next. It segues beautifully from one subplot to another. And it is always believable, always true to itself. Not to say that there aren’t the usual hilarious Almodóvar moments but, what we get in “Parallel Mothers” is the dramatic Almodóvar, the Almodóvar of Bette Davis and Joan Crawford.
Janis (Penelope Cruz).
It is doubtful if Almodóvar could have achieved these heights without the transcendent performance of his leading lady Penelope Cuz who, like her director, does the best work of her illustrious career here. She’s playing Janis, a single woman pushing forty who is about to give birth to her first child. Janis does not regret her situation. The baby’s father is married to another woman, and she is a realist. She is also a remarkably successful photographer who can provide for the baby on her own.
Ana (Milena Smit).
Sharing her room in a Madrid hospital is a teenage girl Ana (Milena Smit, also superb) who is frightened, and we later find out that her baby was conceived under terrible circumstances. The two women form a strong bond and giving birth within seconds of each other, decide to confront motherhood with hope and fortitude.
Teresa (Aiyana Sanchez-Gijon)
They are, of course, destined to meet again. This is initially instigated by the career aspirations of Ana’s mother Teresa (Aiyana Sanchez-Gijon, a true Almodóvar actress whose every scene must be savored), a performer who must go to “the provinces” with a play and can no longer share in the care of Ana’s baby.
The Unmarked Graves of Generalissimo Franco
A few weeks after Janis arrives home, she receives a visit from the baby’s father Arturo (Israel Elejalde), an archeologist who is preparing to excavate the presumed unmarked grave of Janis’ great-grandfather. He went missing, as did around 100, 000 others, during the Spanish Civil War and the brutal Franco dictatorship that followed. Again, Almodovar seamlessly weaves this subplot into the movie.
A Beautiful Baby.
Janis takes Arturo to see their beautiful baby girl. Unfortunately, a few minutes later, he leaves, insisting he could not be the father of such a swarthy child. His only explanation for the baby’s brown skin is that Janis’ had a Venezuelan grandfather! At this stage you are thinking OK. I know what Almodovar is hinting at, but could it really happen today?
Janis and Ana
Later, when Ana, through a chance encounter, ends up moving in with Janis we begin to think; Yes! These things can still happen. And that is as it must be since the audience is in for an extensive line of equally spectacular yet believable surprises. All of which are managed with expert grace and dignity by Almodóvar and Cruz. Even another person named Janis singing “Summertime” is perfectly integrated into the plot).
A second Oscar for Penelope?
Cruz who recently won Best Actress from both the LAFCA and the NSFC would be the deserving winner of this year’s Best Actress Oscar. Kudos also to Almodóvar regular’s cinematographer Jose Luis Alcaine for his luscious and expressive color palette and Alberto Iglesias’ haunting orchestral score. As for Almodóvar, his direction and masterful original screenplay never falter all the way to the film’s cathartic conclusion at the gravesite excavation. A masterpiece!