Venice 2021 ‘Parallel Mothers’ Review: Pedro Almodóvar Opens the 78th Venice Film Festival with Mothers, Mix-Ups, and Melodrama

Venice International Film Festival

Pedro Almodóvar’s cinematic universe is undoubtedly ruled by women. From the colorful hysterics of his breakthrough feature Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown to the equally theatrical — though more contemplative — intergenerational melodramas All About My Mother and Volver, women are depicted as the custodians of the past, the heroines of the present, and the bearers of the future. But if women dominate the screen in Parallel Mothers, so, too, does the absence of men.

Opening the 78th Venice International Film Festival, Parallel Mothers (Spanish title: Madres Paralelas) is the story of Janis (Penélope Cruz) and Ana (Milena Smit), two expectant mothers who meet in a maternity ward shortly before going into labor. Janis is nearly 40 and works as a professional fashion photographer. Her pregnancy is the result of an affair with married forensic archaeologist Arturo (Israel Elejalde), and although it’s unexpected, she welcomes the chance to be a mother. Ana is seemingly her opposite: a teenager terrified in the face of an unwanted pregnancy and intent on burying the past that led to her current situation. When the identities of their newborn babies are called into question, the sort of campy mix-ups, misunderstandings, and plot twists one would expect from an Almodóvar film ensue. But underneath lies a much more serious story: a reflection on personal and national history that follows in line with Almodóvar’s new era of stylistic and narrative maturity introduced by 2019’s autobiographical Pain and Glory.

Janis’s relationship with Arturo begins not with an affair, but with a request for help: she wants to exhume the bodies of her great-grandfather and 10 other desaparecidos from her town who were shot and buried in an unmarked grave by Falangists during the Franco regime. Her desire is simple: to give her great-grandfather a proper burial and a headstone. The obstacles are more bureaucratic than anything else, and once Arturo agrees, this secondary storyline fades into the background as the two mothers and their ever-shifting relationship take center stage. But the weight of the past gives thematic meaning to the present and the future, implying that historical violence becomes part of our DNA whether we like it or not, and that it must be confronted in order to move forward and create new life.

Having come of age during the Francoist regime, Almodóvar’s work has always been in some way a reaction to the oppressive political environment of his youth. His early films, made during his time as part of La Movida Madrileña (Madrid’s post-Franco countercultural movement), were a rebellious expression of the need for a new, post-Franco identity. Sexuality, pop art, postmodernism, and camp were flung together to tell soap opera-esque stories of desire and betrayal, unfolding in a series of dizzying plot twists.

The styles and themes of his youthful era echo clearly in Parallel Mothers, but at age 71, Almodóvar’s style has become more muted, his themes more reflective. The Douglas Sirk-inspired set design remains present throughout — especially in Janis’s stylish Madrid apartment — but the color-blocked primary hues of the past have been replaced with more naturalistic greens and oranges. At times, the story stops to observe a signature moment of playful postmodern framing: a Blow Up-style fashion shoot, a monologue by Ana’s thespian mother. Moments like these don’t entirely mesh with the mood of the film, just as the campier plot twists never feel wholly necessary amidst the more serious — and ultimately, more interesting —  storylines of birth, death, and remembrance. But they have a nostalgic familiarity to them, the director nodding to the loyal viewers who have followed him into this new chapter.

Of course, the most iconic element that Almodóvar carries over to Parallel Mothers is none other than his trusted lead Cruz, who makes the transition into independent and imperfect single mother Janis with compelling intensity. She finds her foil in the 24-year-old Smit, whose androgynous looks and headstrong desire for autonomy encapsulate the spirit of Gen Z.

The dynamic that develops between their two characters echoes the dynamic Almodóvar seeks to create between himself and his country’s youth: the director imbues Cruz’s character with his own urgent determination to unearth the violence of the past, to make the absence of the thousands of desaparecidos felt. He neither ignores the new generation nor attempts to represent it. Rather, he talks to it through Janis, passing down stories and imparting social responsibility like a cinematic elder. It is a graceful evolution for one of Spain’s most iconic auteurs, one that enables the exploration of new territory without compromising a brand built over the course of 22 feature films.

Janis and Ana, mothers and fathers, new life and remembered death; Parallel Mothers is full of parallel and intersecting lines. The scenes where they cross — a kiss set to the coarse crooning of Janis Joplin or the confused gaze of a baby before a grave — create the kind of wordless power that only masterful filmmakers can achieve. Not every line is followed to its end, and much is left unsaid. But enough is understood to create a warm portrait of motherhood, whose glow nonetheless does not quite cancel out the shadow of missing fatherhood.

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