Since his breakthrough with “Matador” and “Law of Desire” in the mid-eighties, Spanish director Pedro Almodóvar has given us one great movie after another and the ones that are not so great are always enjoyable, always watchable. He ranks right up there with Hitchcock and Fellini was one of the all-time great movie directors. My favorite Almodóvar’s movie has not changed in twenty three 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 including Oscar wins for both (Best Original Screenplay for “Talk to Her” and Best Supporting Actress for “Vicky Christina Barcelona,” respectively).
Now, however, I have to announce that, having seen his masterpiece “Parallel Mothers,” “Flesh” has dropped to the number two position and 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, segues beautifully from one subplot to another and 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.
That said, 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 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 very successful photographer who can provide for the baby on her own.
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.
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 has to be savored), a performer who has to go to “the provinces” with a play and can no longer share in the care of Ana’s baby. 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 who went missing, as did around 100, 000 others, during the Spanish Civil War and the brutal Franco dictatorship that followed – this is also a major subplot in the movie.
Janis takes Arturo to see their beautiful baby girl. Unfortunately, a few minutes later he is leaving insisting he could not be the father of such a swarthy child (he suggests that the only other explanation for the baby’s brown skin might be Janis’ Venezuelan grandfather!). By this stage, the audience is saying: No Way. Not Today. This Could Not Happen.
Later, when Ana, through a chance encounter, ends up moving in with Janis we are beginning to think; Yes! These things can still happen. And that is as it must be since the audience is in for a long line of equally spectacular yet ultimately 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).
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 although it will go to another impressive performance; Kirstin Stewart’s Diana
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!